Boost It: The Importance of Boosters

By Dave Gondek, December 3, 2021
A message from Dave Gondek, associate professor of microbiology and immunology.

Coughs and sneezes spread diseases but can be controlled with dose, duration and distance.  

We are now fully entering cold and flu season, COVID cases are on the rise and new viral variants are being discovered. Today’s health column is all about boosters. I am not just speaking about vaccine boosters, but all the ways we can boost the prevention of infectious diseases.   

Infections like coronavirus and influenza are spread through aerosols and droplets that are expelled from our respiratory system. To help mitigate our exposure we need to think about this as a Swiss cheese problem. A single layer of protection is not perfect, we need to layer multiple types of protection to keep our IC campus protected. Let’s talk about how we can boost each layer! 

Boost Your Vaccination

Vaccination is the best source of personal defense against infectious diseases like SARS-CoV2 and influenza. Vaccinations are designed to provide lifelong immunity and will decrease the likelihood of severe complications from infection. The vaccines have been shown to be effective against previous viral variants and will offer the best protection against future variants. However, a vaccine is not a forcefield to block the virus from entering your body, the virus can still infect you but will likely be controlled early in the infection if you have high levels of pre-existing immunity. That is where boosters come in!  Everyone is now eligible for SARS-CoV2 booster shots from their health providers. Before coming back to campus this spring, it is strongly encouraged we all get our vaccines boosted. The influenza virus is also circulating at higher levels this year. It is okay to get both SARS-CoV2 and influenza vaccines at the same time. This will help prevent a “twindemic” from hitting our community. 

Your immune system is a marvelous adaptable part of your body, and it can be trained over time. With each dose of the vaccine, you are increasing both the number of virus specific immune cells and their ability to bind/neutralize the pathogen. However, maintaining a “standing immune army” is energetically expensive, so your immunity, specifically circulating antibodies, will decrease as time passes since your last vaccination. Therefore, we need multiple doses and booster shots. During the peak of cold and flu season a boost will maximize the number of immune cells at the same time we are most likely to encounter the pathogen.  

If you are immunocompromised or have co-morbidities (overweight, diabetic, heart problems, etc.) you are more at risk for severe disease from COVID-19 and the booster is something you need to get for personal safety. Additionally, as new variants emerge the vaccines are still very effective, but it may take higher levels of immunity to prevent severe disease. If we all get boosted, this will ramp up our immunity, and will decrease disease burden in our local community and help control viral spread. 

Boost Your Masking

The SARS-CoV2 pathogen is spread by droplets and aerosols. Droplets are large particles that are launched from your nose at ~140mph, then follow a nice gentle arc to the ground, landing 4 to 8 feet from your face, this is why we have the 6-foot rule—to increase your distance to avoid droplets.  Aerosols on the other hand are small particles that can hang in the air column for several minutes and can travel 20-30 feet from the source—this is why we have improved room ventilation, upgraded HVAC filters and better air flow.  

The best way to mitigate the spread of the pathogen is to put a mask on the infected person. However, this disease has an interesting biology that allows it to be highly transmissible for two full days before the infected individual has any symptoms. Additionally, there is a fair percentage of people who will be asymptomatic—capable of spreading the virus, but never show any symptoms. This means we all need to wear masks when we are near others and keep that mask over your mouth and nose. Also, cover your mouth with an elbow, over the mask, if you cough or sneeze. Bring several back-up masks with you every day so that you can swap them out. Proper masking will decrease the dosage or amount of virus that can be found circulating in the air. 

Boost Your Personal/Social Behavior

If you are not feeling well, we need to first think of COVID. One way to enhance our safety is to increase the distance between each other. Keep in mind that the most likely place for the spread of disease will be at social gatherings outside of the classroom. If you are unmasked in your home or dorm room, make sure to add more distance. Additionally, if you have cold or flu-like symptoms, please stay home. Email your professors and let them know, but do not go to class, club or your sport. To aid with this we can use our IC badge system. Faculty and staff need to ask every time, to see a badge before we commence a classroom or social activity on campus. Students need to be honest about how they feel and follow the directions in the badge system if they are symptomatic. Ithaca College offers both PCR and rapid testing for SARS-CoV2 of symptomatic individuals, so it is best to know before you go to class, a club or a sport activity. Proper use of the badge system will enhance the distance of symptomatic people from other members of our community and keep our transmission rates low. 

Boost Your Awareness

Winter is coming and the common cold, influenza and SARS-CoV2 are on the rise. The behaviors we had in the warm days of summer and cool days of autumn will need to change. As the case numbers rise both nationally and locally, we need to think about how we can change our behaviors to decrease personal risk. Consider those places and locations that you go where you will be in large numbers of people. Consider going in off-peak hours. Plan those trips to the store so that you can most efficiently pick up what you need and then remove yourself from that space. Ask your friend, colleague or peer to please adjust their mask and remind them of the IC community agreement. If your repeated proactive attempts are not having an impact, remember that we have the IC community agreement reporting form.  We are all in this together, being more aware of enhanced risks during cold/flu season and modifying behaviors accordingly, will help decrease the duration of your exposure. 

Boost Your Compassion and Decrease the Stigma of Disease

Our in-person residential community is the heart of the Ithaca College experience. COVID has created a collection of mental health issues and students have a real fear of missing out when they are unable to go to the class, activity or sport. We as a community need to support each other through compassion and not create a fear or stigma associated with being sick. Professors need to be flexible with attendance, understanding that this is not a normal year and normal attendance policies may be too strict. We can provide equitable experiences for students in quarantine/isolation so that they can keep up with their work. Leaders of clubs, activities and sports should be understanding of when a member can’t make it due to symptoms and encourage that person to go get tested. During this year of COVID circulation “the show/sport/class must go on” needs to be tempered with an understanding that these are not yet normal times.  

Through compassion and flexibility, we can create the best possible Ithaca College experience while also mitigating the spread of cold and flu in our community. 

Dave Gondek 
Associate Professor Microbiology & Immunology