Flu Vaccination May Guard Against Alzheimer’s Dementia

While it is early summer here in North America, most primary care practices have already ordered their influenza vaccine for the fall of 2022. Our practice will be using the “senior” high dose quadrivalent vaccine for patients 65 years of age and older as recommended by the ACIP (American College of Immunization Practices), a division of the CDC.

While experts debate when to administer the vaccine, we prefer to do it between Halloween and Thanksgiving based on when influenza arrives in South Florida and the limited length of protection seniors get from the vaccine. Flu shots can protect against serious infection and hospitalization in most cases.

Avram Bukhbinder, MD, of the University of Texas Medical Center in Houston believes the vaccine also protects seniors against Alzheimer’s disease. His work was published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease recently.

His group looked at almost one million influenza vaccinated adults and compared them over time with a similar sized unvaccinated group of senior citizens 65 years of age or older. The median age was 73.7 years and 57% were women. All were free of dementia over the six year “look back period”.

They followed these groups for 46 months and found the risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease was 40% lower in the vaccinated group. The paper did not determine why the flu vaccine lowered the risk of developing Alzheimer’s dementia. Dr. Bukhbinder hypothesized that the vaccine may have prevented severe inflammation seen with infection reducing the development of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. An official with the Alzheimer’s Association was quick to point out that possibly those who took flu shots were more health conscious leading to less development of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Further research is warranted but this study provides an additional incentive to obtain your flu shot this fall.

COVID-19 Ba2 Variant: My Medical Office

There has been an increase in patients infected and testing positive for COVID-19 in our area. For those who have been vaccinated, and received the boosters, if you get this new variant your symptoms will likely be similar to a cold and flu.   

Typically, most people will not get sick enough to require hospitalization or the intensive care unit. However, as with any serious illness, there are always exceptions.  Recently, we lost a patient who was vaccinated and had received the COVID-19 boosters. He was taking an immunosuppressive medication for a serious skin issue but still his loss is a horrible reminder of how fickle and deadly this illness can be.

At this time, we require our patients to be vaccinated and have received a booster. For those individuals over 50 years old, or immunosuppressed, who have taken the three shots, four or more months ago, we encourage you to take a fourth shot. Local CVS , Walgreens, Publix are administering the vaccines by walk in at some locations or by appointment. You can schedule an appointment online by accessing their websites or calling them. If you cannot use a computer, call my practice and we will try to set up your appointment for you if you are my patient.

We will continue to ask our list of questions as a screening process to determine if a  face-to-face office visit in needed. The questions come from the CDC, the University of Minnesota School of Medicine Department of Infectious Disease with M. Osterholm, MD as chairperson and from the cruise ship industry. With two staff persons over 65 years old, and two living in multigenerational households, we are entitled to know the risks to our staff in advance of a visit. We are taking these precautions for the safety of our staff and their loved ones.

PATIENTS WHO TEST POSITIVE:

  1. Patients who test positive, with no symptoms, will need to quarantine at home for five (5) days per CDC guidelines. If they have no further symptoms after five days, they may resume their lives but wear a mask around others for an additional  five (5) days.
  2. Those who test positive and develop symptoms should quarantine for at least five (5) days and until symptoms are gone for at least 24 hours. They should be wearing a mask around others for 10 days from the start of symptoms.
  3. Those who test positive with symptoms and consider themselves high risk patients need to call the office. Sotravimab monoclonal antibodies are still being administered in Florida until the number of COVID cases caused by the Ba2 mutant is > 50% of all cases in the state. Baptist Health Boca Raton Regional Hospital still has an active monoclonal antibody infusion program. When Sotravimab is removed from use due to ineffectiveness, we can prescribe the oral medications Paxlovid ( if you are not taking any of the medications contraindicated with it) or the Merck pill Molnupiravir. If you are ill and have questions please just call us.

Testing locations are a real issue. The state sites at FAU runway and South County Civic Center have apparently been shut down. If you have questions about where to test call the office please.

We are actively seeing patients in person in the office Monday through Friday in the safest environment we can provide. Just because people wish to pretend that the pandemic is over doesn’t make it so! We recommend that when indoors, in public places, you continue to wear an N95 or KN95 mask if you do not know the others around you. With the Ba2 variant being so much more infectious and transmissible than previous variants you need to consider whether going to your gym, indoor dining and indoor clubs and theater are in your best interests.

Recent peer reviewed published studies show that those infected with even mild COVID not requiring hospitalization or treatment carry an increased risk of heart attack or stroke for at least the next 12 months. Controlled diabetics lose control in 40 % of the infections and those with pre-Diabetes on the borderline convert to full blown type II Diabetes in 40% of the infections even if mild.

At the current time, we are only accepting vaccinated individuals for our complimentary meet and greet sessions and as new patients. Patients who are not vaccinated and have at least one booster (unless they have a documented medical condition preventing vaccination) will not be retained when their annual membership is due for renewal. If you have any questions, suggestions or comments please call the office and stay safe!

Omicron is the Grinch That Stole Christmas

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) is reporting that up to 90% of the infections with COVID-19 Sars 2 Coronavirus are the new Omicron strain. It replicates itself 70 times faster than the Delta strain and contact with an infected person within 12 feet for one or more seconds can result in infection. For those who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 with the Moderna or Pfizer Vaccine, and received a third shot or booster, the expectation is that if they become infected with Omicron, they will either have no symptoms or a mild case. By definition “mild COVID” means your respiratory system is not compromised enough to require hospitalization. Despite this, most of the current deaths in countries which are having a COVID surge are in people older than 65 years of age.

In the past, when patients in this area became infected with COVID-19, we arranged for them to go to the local hospitals to receive an infusion of a monoclonal antibody solution made either by Regeneron or by Eli Lilly. The infusion prevented the infection from becoming severe enough to progress to a severe state requiring inpatient hospital respiratory care. These monoclonal antibodies do not work against Omicron. For this reason, the FDA and CDC have removed the Emergency Use Authorization and ended the administration of these drugs nationwide.

There is a third monoclonal antibody made by Glaxo and Var called Sotrovimab which effectively throttles Omicron, but it is in limited supply. As of today, the State of Florida has received 1050 dosages. Production has been accelerated and hopefully the drug will be available in mid to late January for infusion. There are two new antiviral pills which should work as well. The Pfizer product received FDA approval today and, with production acceleration, some should be available by mid-January. Until these drugs are locally available the medical community has no medications to offer patients who contract the COVID-19 Delta or Omicron variant to limit the severity of the disease.

My advice to my patients and loved ones is to reintroduce distancing and masking. Wear a good N95 mask when you will be around others – especially indoors. If you must be indoors with others, make sure the windows and doors are open and the ventilation is excellent. If there is an air filtration system with HEPA Merv 13 level filters and ultraviolet light that adds protection. Distancing with the aggressive Omicron variant will require 12 feet not six feet.

This is a heartbreaking restrictive change in scheduling and behavior we are asking for at a time of the year when families and friends travel to gather to celebrate. Younger and leaner healthier individuals who are vaccinated will survive this. The real questions are who they will transmit this infection to unknowingly, who is too young to be vaccinated or too old to have a robust immune system?

Our office staff will be reassessing the risk to patients and staff daily. With the local testing positivity rate >10% in Palm Beach County, our contacts will be by phone and telehealth. When the Pfizer anti-viral pill Paxlovid is available, and or Sotrovimab for infusion, we will return to regular in-office patient visits.

I apologize for the inconvenience. Stay safe and call if you have questions.

Why Have Guidelines, Rules & Regulations If No One Adheres to Them & There are NO Consequences?

I live and practice internal medicine and geriatrics in South Florida. We have a substantial elderly population living both independently and in senior facilities. The Sars2 Coronavirus Pandemic has been devastating to this patient population. There are many who became ill and passed away under the loneliest circumstances of in-hospital isolation. There are those who became ill and recovered but have lingering long-term effects. There are those who have avoided infection but are just beaten down by the daily monotony of staying safe, avoiding crowded public places and subsequently forsaking the company of friends and family.

The vaccine rollout in Florida was Helter Skelter and disorganized. It was every man and woman for themselves trying to obtain an appointment to be vaccinated. For the most, part the senior community managed to get the shots.

We were all grateful and buoyed as the summer of 2021 began by the news that we could venture out without masks and start resuming our pre-pandemic lives. The Delta variant and the recent surge in infectious cases, hospitalizations and now mortality put a quick and moribund end to that for most. The disparity between the message coming out of Washington and the CDC and the message delivered by our Governor and State Legislature has made decision making for individuals far more difficult than it should be. The latest conundrum is about the need for booster COVID vaccines or not.

The State of Israel, which exclusively used the Pfizer Vaccine, announced a third shot for those over 50 beginning a few weeks ago. Germany announced it would start such a program in September.

The CDC hinted at a booster program but until a NY Times article appeared on the evening of August 16th there was no official news on the subject beyond the recommendation that immunosuppressed individuals, especially organ transplant patients and cancer patients, under therapy get a third shot. Days before this announcement my patients had begun calling me, texting me, emailing me to tell me that their friends had walked into a Walgreens Pharmacy or Publix Pharmacy, showed them their Medicare ID card and their vaccine card and had been administered a third COVID vaccine shot with no questions asked. This was substantiated by multiple other patients including one couple spending the summer in the mountains of North Carolina.

Is there one set of rules for large chain pharmacies and another set for the rest of the world? What is the point of data and evidence-based recommendations if anyone can just do what they want when they want to?

At this point I will wait to hear the CDC’s recommendations on when to take a third shot and the data they used to explain why. I am thrilled that Pfizer has shown that a third shot is safe with few adverse effects. I am also buoyed by a research paper that showed that those groups who spaced their second shot at longer than the three- or four-week recommendations had a more robust immunologic response.

When my friends call me and ask me to join them on a trip to Publix or Walgreens to get the third shot now, I will hear my late mother’s voice in my brain asking that irritating question, “If all your friends decided to jump off the Empire State Building would you jump too?”

Delta Variant, Breakthrough Infections & What You Need to Consider

As a primary care physician treating older adults fifty years of age and older, I am starting to be involved in the treatment of “breakthrough” COVID-19 cases in vaccinated adults. At the end of June 2021, just prior to the July 4th holiday, we were told to enjoy the summer if we were vaccinated. Many in my patient population took this to mean book flight and cruise reservations and begin travelling. Others started meeting friends to shop again, exercise together in gyms or eat lunch socially indoors.  Experts at the CDC felt it was safe to take off our masks indoors.  Then came the Delta variant – a far more transmissible virus. 

I first read about breakthrough cases in a peer reviewed medical journal discussing the widespread outbreak of COVID-19 in Israeli citizens vaccinated with the Pfizer Vaccine. The message was clear, if vaccinated, you can still get the viral infection with the Delta variant, but you won’t require hospitalization and you have a minimal chance of dying. 

With that news many of my patients continued resuming their lives and normalizing to pre-pandemic routines without masking or distancing in public areas.  Three weeks ago, our local hospital had no breakthrough cases. Two weeks ago, there were five. All the breakthrough cases in individuals 65- years of age, or older, or with symptoms, are invited to receive the monoclonal antibody treatment which shortens the course of the illness and the severity.   Treatment should be within 10 days of first developing symptoms. The cases are so numerous this week that there is a wait of days to get treated.

In discussing the breakthrough cases with my ill patients, they all feel miserable.  They are exhausted, coughing, some febrile with high fevers and severe joint and muscle aches. Some have lost their sense of taste and smell. They say the monoclonal antibodies help, but a week later most of my patients are too weak and tired to do much beyond their necessary activities of daily living. They call daily asking how much longer this will last.  My answer is, “I just do not know.”

I also do not know If their viral load was high enough to transmit the disease to the unvaccinated, the immunosuppressed vulnerable vaccinated patients or even other vaccinated individuals.  The experts are not sure either. Will these vaccinated breakthrough patients become “long haulers” with chronic symptoms stretching to months post infection?  We don’t know – it’s too soon to tell. 

I am also getting calls from patients who were out socially unmasked with close friends and relatives and have now received a phone call that their friends have the COVID-19 infection, and they were exposed.  These patients need to be tested for the disease a few days after exposure but, with the closure of all the state-run testing sites locally, you are limited to going to your pharmacy or some walk-in clinics for COVID testing. Take my advice, get the nasal PCR test sent to the lab which takes longer than the quick test but produces fewer incorrect results.

What I do know is this is a disease well worth avoiding.  Get vaccinated if you haven’t already done so.  Wear a good N95 or KN95 mask if you must go out in public to an indoor facility, and you have no idea who is vaccinated, and who isn’t, and who might be spreading the disease prior to developing clear cut symptoms.  Yes, this is retreating and taking a step backwards into a bunker mentality.  If you don’t believe me, just ask my COVID-19 breakthrough patients. They will tell you this is more than just a “bad flu.”

Making Sense of the New CDC Guidelines Here in Florida

There were almost 6,000 new cases of Coronavirus illness in Florida yesterday with the positivity rate of those tested being well above 5%. Fewer and fewer people are showing up for testing or to receive vaccine here in the Sunshine State.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has issued new less restrictive activity guidelines last week which suggest outdoor activities in low population densities do not require a mask. This makes great sense and I am in complete agreement. They go further and say small indoor gatherings with vaccinated individuals do not require a mask. This makes great scientific sense as well. What they do not want is thousands of individuals, whose vaccination or immunity status is unknown to be packed into a venue indoors or out without being masked. They additionally don’t recommend large private gatherings indoors of individuals whose immune status is unknown. This makes sense to me as well in Florida where the infectious positivity rate remains greater than 5%.

We know vaccinated individuals have a low probability of catching COVID if exposed. If they are unlucky enough to catch it (about 6,000 breakthrough cases are known in the USA with about 150 million already receiving vaccine) there is an even smaller chance of getting sick enough to require hospitalization or dying. They still are not sure if those infected can transmit it to those unvaccinated or those frail, immunosuppressed and vulnerable.

The Governor of Florida and his Attorney General have sued the CDC, NIH and Federal government demanding that they allow cruise ships to begin sailing again from Florida ports. My daughter and grandchildren depend on cruise industry revenue to pay their mortgage, feed and clothe the family and live. The cruise industry has gone to great expense to vaccinate its crews and restrict passenger access to those who can prove they have been vaccinated or prove they are not COVID Positive. They wanted a “vaccine passport” for passengers.

Florida responds by having its Surgeon General, pediatrician friend and political ally of the Governor with zero public health or infectious disease background declare if you are vaccinated you are not required to wear a mask anywhere anytime. The legislature, composed primarily of members of the Governors party, passes legislation forbidding businesses from barring individuals from their business based on their vaccine status. This comes well after they supported the Governor with legislation forbidding local municipalities from enforcing local ordinances requiring masks.

I want the ships to sail so my son-in-law keeps his job! The last thing we need is for Florida politics to permit a ship to go out to sea and become a center of infection, illness and death because Florida elected officials watered down the sensible guidelines the cruise industry developed to begin sailing again safely.

Florida is a gateway state encouraging visitors from Latin and Central America as well as US tourists. Brazil is embroiled in a COVID surge of infection and death . The poverty in Central America and the islands prevent knowing exactly what their status is. I am more concerned about the disease entering and leaving Florida via visitors and no rules than I am concerned with illegal immigrants bringing it in at the Texas and Arizona borders as the media and certain elements of the U S seem to be.

Vaccines have brought us so close to controlling the Pandemic. Why can’t we mask up and be patient for a few weeks more?

In my office we will continue to follow the CDC guidelines. We will wait to see if the relaxed mask recommendations of the CDC, plus the vaccine program, keep the infection rate down. Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkes’ no mask for the vaccinated anywhere may be interpreted as no masks anywhere for everyone. It will take three to four weeks for the consequences of these announcements to make an impact. If the number of infected decreases, my physician associate and I will sit down and alter our approach based on the science. Until that time, we will require masks in our office!

Put on a Mask and Just Stay Home!

I listened to the Governor of my home state, Florida, declare our state the freedom state because all the businesses are open and running full tilt.  He cited his success in keeping deaths from coronavirus low while keeping the economy running and jobs available.

I bring this up because on my way to visit my fully vaccinated adult children last weekend I passed by at least 20 overhead electronic road signs proclaiming, “Miami Beach Curfew 8PM – 6 AM Causeways Closed!”  Yes, here it was springtime with Passover and Easter on the horizon and the famed Miami Beach was closing at night.  We are at a critical point in the fight against the Sars2 COVID-19 coronavirus. We are trying to vaccinate enough people quickly so that the virus does not enter a vulnerable host and mutate to a form that the vaccine is less effective against.   We are so close to controlling this pathogen but human nature and failure to be able to delay gratification, and put off travel and group activities, is leading to a potential fourth surge of COVID-19 related illness and death.

My cell phone rang twice with patient calls on the 60-minute trip southward. The first was from a patient whose adult children came to visit him. His unvaccinated eighteen-year-old grandson was with them. After spending four days together they received a phone call that the grandson’s girlfriend was sick and tested positive for COVID-9. The next two calls were from patients who had been to two different Passover seders. One was outdoors, the other indoors with 20 plus guests. Both had been exposed to a person who called the next day to say they were COVID-19 positive.

I watched the director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an experienced infectious disease and critical care physician, beg Americans to wear a mask and social distance while she was brought to tears by the thought of another wave of illness, death and prolonged restrictions. I listened to the President of the United States plead with state governments to maintain mask restrictions a bit longer to save lives and control the disease. I listened to the Vatican public relations division discuss not holding an Easter Service in St. Peters Square this coming weekend and wondered what it will take to convince people that we just are not ready to resume full activities.

The Governor of Florida is correct. Deaths are down due to vaccinations and the elderly staying home. I suspect if he tracks the cell phones of the tourists and spring breakers to their home states and countries three weeks from now, he will see an increase in hospitalizations and deaths.  Florida’s economy may boom but we certainly are maintaining it at the cost of illness and death elsewhere.

Are My Symptoms Due to COVID-19 or the Vaccine?

The Pfizer COVID-19 mRNA vaccine received Emergency Utilization Authorization by the FDA and CDC last week and is being administered to health care workers and seniors in senior facilities as I write. The process began overseas in the United Kingdom last week.

Many of the recipients of the first of two vaccinations are experiencing symptoms as their immune system reacts to the vaccine and hopefully builds antibodies and immunity. They are experiencing fever, fatigue, headaches, chills, myalgias and arthralgias.  Many of these symptoms are identical to the symptom’s individuals infected with COVID-19 experience yet these healthcare workers are expected to take some Tylenol or aspirin and head back to work caring for patients.  How exactly are they expected to distinguish between being infected with “the Rona” virus or just experiencing mild side effects of the vaccine?    

David Kuhar, MD, of the CDC’s COVID-19 Response Healthcare Infection Control Team suggests health care workers need to use their clinical judgement.  They need to assess whether they believe they were exposed to the virus in the previous 14 days?  He emphasized that in clinical trials, these adverse symptoms resolved within 3 days of vaccination and 2 days of the onset of symptoms. If the symptoms last any longer, he believes the healthcare workers need to be evaluated for a COVID-19 infection.  He stressed that the vaccination will not produce a positive COVID-19 antigen test response. It additionally should not produce shortness of breath and loss of taste and smell sensations. 

If you experience those symptoms or have your symptoms for more than two days, then you need to go to a COVID-19 test site and be tested.  The CDC has set up a communication system for those vaccinated called V-safe.  It is an app for your smartphone or tablet that allows you to communicate your symptoms and concerns with the CDC after you receive the vaccine.  When you are vaccinated at a test site, you are provided the information you need to register and participate in this V-safe monitoring program.  The information gathered on this smartphone app will allow the CDC to continue to monitor the safety of the vaccines being administered.

Post-Thanksgiving Travel Quarantine Guidelines & Other Matters

I hope all in my practice had a safe and enjoyable Thanksgiving. For those of you who travelled out of the area and stayed elsewhere for Thanksgiving, the Center for Disease Control recommends a 14-day quarantine at home before resuming local activities while staying masked and keeping a safe social distance in the community. A seven-day quarantine with a negative PCR test at that point is a less acceptable option but one noted by them as well.

Quarantine means staying home. It doesn’t mean shopping with a mask. It doesn’t mean getting a haircut or hair coloring or nail treatment while wearing a mask.  It doesn’t mean working out with a trainer from a distance in your home with a mask on. It means staying home for 14 days! These are not my rules and recommendations.  They are the recommendations of the CDC.

I was one of the lucky individuals who did get to see most of my children and grandchildren from a distance on Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is my wife’s favorite holiday. A crowd of 20 or more is the norm in our home.

This year she made a small turkey, baked some breads and we drove down to Palmetto Bay in Dade County for dinner. My California daughter had been there for several weeks helping with the two children and working remotely as have my youngest daughter and son-in-law.

We brought a folding table, chairs, paper plates and disposable forks, knives and cups. My children made stuffing, sweet potatoes, salad and dessert. Since I am the only person in the group going out daily and seeing patients in my office, I am the security risk in this COVID-free bubble. We all wore masks and sat outside at distance.

As much as I wanted to hug and kiss my grandsons, I kept my distance. I stayed outside except for a trip into a poolside cabana bathroom. As different and sterile as it was, I was one of the fortunate ones who got to see and break bread with family.

With vaccines on the horizon, hopefully this will never happen again.

Pediatricians Sending Flu & Upper Respiratory Patients to ERs and Urgent Care Centers

As we head into the post-Thanksgiving and pre-Christmas season with a huge surge in COVID-19 infections and the emergence of the flu , pediatricians, like most primary care physicians , are sending their respiratory patients to be screened at ERs and Urgent Care Centers rather than bringing them into their offices for evaluation. Citing a lack of sufficient personal protective equipment, lack of accurate on site COVID-19 testing ability and concern for healthy individuals being exposed to COVID-19; they are offering telehealth visits only.

The Kaiser Health Foundation Newsletter, in a scathing opinion piece, quoted many academic pediatricians calling this an abandonment of patients. It is easy for those who supervise from a distance and don’t generally see patients to criticize those who do. The truth is, pediatricians are following the initial CDC guidelines.

Those patients tested in an appropriate timeframe after exposure, with an appropriate and accurate test, are being seen by their pediatricians and not referred elsewhere.

The lack of a national program providing guidance and support is the reason this health care situation exists. There are no clear-cut guidelines from our major medical societies, specialty societies, public health departments and major health companies which provide patient care including hospital chains as well as state, local or federal governments. There is no leadership about when practices should stay open and when they should lockdown.

Restrictions of any kind are met by legal challenges from the business and religious sectors. Citizens do whatever they choose to with little thought about how their choices impact others. Within this mix of chaos, Kaiser Permanente has no right to criticize small mom and pop practices trying to provide care and advice to their patients without possessing the resources to keep themselves and their employees safe from COVID-19.