The fall season is approaching, COVID cases are projected to tick up again, and the uptake for the new booster is strikingly slow.
South Florida hospital leaders are concerned.
So far, only about 37,000 of Florida’s 20 million eligible residents have received the new bivalent booster shot designed to target the omicron subvariants that have dominated caseloads in Florida in 2022, according to a state health report released Friday.
The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention signed off on updated versions of Pfizer’s and Moderna’s booster shots on Sept. 1, and Florida pharmacies and doctors’ offices began administering them just after Labor Day. The bivalent shots target both the original coronavirus strain and omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5, which are now circulating.
Walgreens, CVS and even independent pharmacies are giving out the new shots, as are primary care practices, particularly those in the state that cater to seniors.
Overall, vaccinations haven’t been an easy sell overall in Florida. Only 68% of Floridians completed their original two-dose vaccine course, and fewer than half of those have received any booster shot.
If the pace of booster vaccinations doesn’t pick up, not just in Florida but nationwide, experts worry that as immunity wanes, the U.S. could see an increase in cases, hospitalizations and deaths during the fall. Some public health officials forecast another COVID wave around Thanksgiving.
“We are hopeful the added protection of the booster will keep hospitalization down, but people hear the pandemic is over or that people are getting COVID without symptoms and they think, ‘that’s me I won’t get it’ or ‘COVID is no longer a concern,’” said Dr. F. Scott Ross, chief medical officer at Cleveland Clinic Florida. “The problem is COVID is still out there. Vaccination is key to keeping the virus under control.”
The new booster is approved for adults who got their last dose at least two months ago.
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Some Floridians, especially those who have had COVID in recent months, are waiting.
At hearings, CDC experts told the panel, “People who recently had SARS-CoV-2 infection may consider delaying any COVID-19 vaccination, including bivalent booster vaccination, by 3 months from symptom onset or positive test (if the infection was asymptomatic).”
The booster doses produced by Pfizer and Moderna target different age groups. The CDC-authorized Pfizer and BioNTech’s shot is for people as young as 12. Moderna is approved for those 18 and older.
Ross said anyone who is ambivalent should consider that treatment for COVID may soon become more costly, and less accessible.
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When federal supplies of therapeutics to treat COVID, such as monoclonal antibodies, run out, the patient will be charged, and some insurance providers may not cover the cost. “Insurers likely will come up with their own set of standards for who gets it and who doesn’t,” Ross said.
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Scott Wester, CEO of Memorial Healthcare System in South Broward, said when he looks at COVID hospitalizations, South Florida is in a good place at this time, but needs to continue working to stay in that good place. “It’s a good time to get your booster,” he said.
In Florida, seniors have been particularly vulnerable to the disease. Of the 81,139 COVID deaths in the state, nearly 62,000 are people older than 65. Yet only about 25% of Florida seniors have two doses of a booster, according to the CDC.
Cano Health, which serves over 226,000 seniors in Florida, began making the new booster shots available to patients in early September and encouraging immunization. “In this age group, as much protection as possible is important,” said Dr. Emmet Kenney, senior medical director at Cano Health.
In Washington, public health officials want to see the booster numbers rise.
“We’re calling on all Americans: Roll up your sleeve to get your COVID-19 vaccine shot,” White House COVID-19 Coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha said during a news briefing last week. “If you’re 12 and above and previously vaccinated, it’s time to go get an updated COVID-19 shot.”
Sun Sentinel health reporter Cindy Goodman can be reached at email@example.com.