SOUTHERN INDIANA — Health officials in Southern Indiana say they knew the decision was likely to be coming soon and were already prepared to add the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson booster shots to their operations.
Their expectations were realized Thursday when federal health officials said millions more Americans can get a COVID-19 booster and even choose a different company’s vaccine for that next shot.
Certain people who received Pfizer vaccinations months ago already are eligible for a booster and now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says specific Moderna and Johnson & Johnson recipients qualify, too, The Associated Press reported.
And, in a bigger change, the agency is allowing the flexibility of “mixing and matching” that extra dose regardless of which type people received first.
The Food and Drug Administration had already authorized such an expansion of the nation’s booster campaign on Wednesday, and it was also endorsed Thursday by a CDC advisory panel. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky had the final word on who gets the extra doses.
“These past 20 months have taught us many things, but mostly to have humility,” she told the panel. “We are constantly learning about this virus, growing the evidence base and accumulating more data.”
There still are restrictions on who qualifies and when for a booster. Starting six months past their last Pfizer or Moderna vaccination, people are urged to get a booster if they’re 65 or older, nursing home residents, or at least 50 and at increased risk of severe disease because of health problems. Boosters also were allowed, but not urged, for adults of any age at increased risk of infection because of health problems or their jobs or living conditions. That includes health care workers, teachers and people in jails or homeless shelters.
Moderna’s booster will come at half the dose of the original two shots.
As for recipients of the single-shot J&J vaccine, a COVID-19 booster is recommended for everyone at least two months after their vaccination. That’s because the J&J vaccine hasn’t proved as protective as the two-dose Moderna or Pfizer options.
Although the Indiana website for online registration is not expected to be updated until Sunday to allow people to register for Moderna or Johnson & Johnson boosters, that’s a technical issue only.
For instance, anyone wishing to get a booster at the Floyd County clinic at IU Southeast Saturday can, the health department staff will just enter their new information into the system once it updates Sunday.
Clark County Health Officer Dr. Eric Yazel and Floyd County Health Officer Dr. Tom Harris both encourage the booster for most people over 18 who have widespread contact in the wider community, “especially the high risk folks and those that are in the general public a lot,” Yazel said.
Yazel has received his booster and said he again has the feeling of safety he did in the months after he received his second regular dose and was considered fully vaccinated.
The Indiana Department of Health’s vaccine dashboard shows that as of Thursday, there were 60,230 fully vaccinated Clark County residents and 42,282 Floyd County residents.
“Fully vaccinated” still means having a second dose of either Pfizer or Moderna, or the one-shot Johnson & Johnson. The booster is to help build up the antibodies that studies show start to wane in the months after full vaccination.
Floyd County’s vaccinated rate is ranked sixth in the state for the number of vaccinated residents per 100,000 people. Other counties in the top five are Boone, Hamilton, Hancock, Johnson and Warrick.
Statewide, 3.35 million Hoosiers have been fully vaccinated.
Clark County will do the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson boosters (and first and second shots) in their outdoor drive-thru area at the health department, keeping Pfizer indoors. That way, children 12 to 18 who may be in need of other vaccines can get those along with Pfizer, which is the only product currently approved for that age group. The Floyd County Health Department is also offering the vaccines at its Bono Road headquarters.
Both Clark and Floyd counties saw a significant number of people wanting the Pfizer booster when it was approved last month, however Harris said the demographics are “the people we didn’t have any trouble getting in to get vaccinated in the first place.”
Nationwide and in Southern Indiana, those 18 to 40 remain the least vaccinated.
The CDC panel didn’t explicitly recommend anyone get a different brand than they started with but left open the option — saying only that a booster of some sort was recommended, the Associated Press reported.
And some of the advisers said they would prefer that J&J recipients receive a competitor’s booster, citing preliminary data from an ongoing government study that suggested a bigger boost in virus-fighting antibodies from that combination.
“We’re at a different place in the pandemic than we were earlier” when supply constraints meant people had to take whatever shot they were offered, noted CDC adviser Dr. Helen Keipp Talbot of Vanderbilt University.
She called it “priceless” to be able to choose a different kind for the booster if, for example, someone might be at risk for a rare side effect from a specific vaccine.
About two-thirds of Americans eligible for COVID-19 shots are fully vaccinated, and the government says getting first shots to the unvaccinated remain the priority. While health authorities hope boosters will shore up waning immunity against milder coronavirus infections, all the vaccines still offer strong protection against hospitalizations and death, even as the extra-contagious Delta variant burned through the country.
CDC’s advisers wrestled with whether people who didn’t really need boosters might be getting them, especially young, otherwise healthy adults whose only qualification was their job.Dr. Sarah Long of Drexel University voiced concerns about opening those people to rare but serious side effects from another dose if they already were adequately protected.
“I have my own concerns that we appear to be recommending vaccines for people who I don’t think need it,” added Dr. Beth Bell of the University of Washington.
But she stressed that the vaccines work and that moving forward with the recommendations makes sense for the sake of being clear and allowing flexibility when it comes to boosters.
Despite concerns by some members, the panels’ votes ended up being unanimous.
The vast majority of the nearly 190 million Americans who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 have received the Pfizer or Moderna options, while J&J recipients account for only about 15 million.