Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom. This editorial was written on behalf of the board by Star Tribune Opinion intern Noor Adwan, a 2023 graduate of the University of Minnesota.


In what health experts have described as a needed step forward in medicine, adults over 60 will be able to be vaccinated this fall against RSV, a virus that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates to cause between 60,000–160,000 hospitalizations and 6,000–10,000 deaths among older Americans per year through respiratory illness.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky's June 29 endorsement of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices' recommendations regarding the vaccine marks the end of a decadeslong initiative to make such protections available against the virus, which made headlines last year when a "tripledemic" of RSV, flu and COVID-19 infections overwhelmed hospitals nationwide.

"It's really an exciting thing to have available," Lynn Bahta, an immunization expert at the Minnesota Department of Health, told an editorial writer.

The Food and Drug Administration approved the Pfizer and GSK vaccines in May. In clinical trials, the GSK vaccine was shown to be 83% effective against RSV-triggered lower respiratory infections the first year after receiving the shot. (Lower respiratory infections are often more severe and longer-lasting than upper respiratory infections.) The Pfizer vaccine was shown to be 89% effective against similar infections in the first year.

Adults at highest risk for severe RSV infections include those over 65, with chronic heart or lung disease or weakened immune systems. While RSV typically manifests in healthy individuals as a cold, it can develop into lung infections or pneumonia in more vulnerable groups.

While someone seeking a vaccine would be protecting themselves, they would also be protecting their community and other vulnerable people, said Eric Musungayi, chief health officer at People's Center, a nonprofit community health center serving south Minneapolis.

While many won't have to worry about RSV (full name: respiratory syncytial virus) until they reach about 65, Bahta said certain racial and ethnic groups — including African Americans, American Indians and people of Hispanic origin — are at a higher risk at an earlier age, which is why the CDC recommendation is for adults 60 and older.

"You really begin to see the frequency of illness take off at about 65," Bahta said. "But when we break down that information, we find that among certain racial groups and ethnic groups that incidence is much higher at a younger age."

Bahta recommended that those between the ages of 60–64 have a conversation with their doctors to determine whether they would benefit from the vaccine.

"[For] some 60-year-olds, it wouldn't be worth getting a vaccine. You want to get it at an age where you're at risk," she said. "So, if you don't have multiple health conditions, it would be better to wait."

Another reason to consult your doctor is the slim but present risk of Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS). In clinical trials of the GSK and Pfizer vaccines, three participants out of about 35,000 developed GBS, a condition in which the body's immune system turns against itself about a week after receiving the shot.

"That's one of the reasons why the recommendation is for this to be something you discuss with your physician," Bahta said. "If you're healthy and 60, the benefit may not outweigh the risk. But, if you've got diabetes and asthma, RSV could be deadly for you."

Because it's newly approved, there are still some unknowns regarding when and where older adults will be able to receive the vaccine, Bahta said. She encouraged interested individuals to keep tabs on their clinics' and health care plans' websites for updates.

If you're insured, you won't need to pay for the vaccine if you follow your plan's rules, Bahta said. But under- and uninsured individuals will likely not have that same flexibility. However, the Minnesota Department of Health plans to purchase some RSV vaccines for clinics that serve under- and uninsured adults. The MDH website has a tool to find free or low-cost vaccination clinics around the metro and in greater Minnesota. Community health centers like People's Center are another good resource for those worried about the potential cost of the vaccine.

Bahta implored older Americans to talk with their doctors about whether the RSV vaccine would benefit them.

"This is a virus that can wreak havoc in an elderly person's lungs and alter their life," she said. "When you have the opportunity to get that vaccine, please talk to your doctor as soon as you are able."

For information on locating free or low-cost vaccines, visit health.state.mn.us/people/immunize/basics/uuavsearch.html.