U.S. preparing to roll out omicron boosters, but distribution faces challenges

Amid a decline in vaccine demand, health departments have lost funding for clinics while also turning attention to monkeypox and other childhood vaccinations.

By Rhonda FanningAugust 29, 2022 5:28 pm, ,

The U.S. is preparing for a new effort at getting out booster shots for the omicron variant of COVID. It’s been a long-awaited development – but has the wait been too long?

Much of the infrastructure in place during the pandemic – like the local programs to bring shots to communities and places where people gather – has disappeared. And many health department workers who’ve been on the front lines have their hands full with more than just COVID amid an ongoing monkeypox outbreak and childhood vaccinations as students return to school.

On top of that, with weakened demand for vaccines and increased survival rates, many health care officials say the momentum behind the earlier push for COVID vaccinations has faded – while others worry we’re letting our guard down too early.

Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist with UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston, joined the Texas Standard to explore where we stand in the state.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: So here we have the Biden administration ramping up sort of a PR move to get the word out about these boosters. But both Pfizer and Moderna are still waiting for the Food and Drug Administration to greenlight emergency use authorization. What’s been the delay? 

Catherine Troisi: Well, the FDA is scheduled to look at these requests Thursday and Friday of this week. The delay has been the FDA, the people on that committee, want to look at the data first and decide what they think is the best thing to do going forward.

And so what exactly does the Biden administration plan to do? And does it look like we’re going to get a lot of shipments to Texas?

Well, right now, the Biden administration has bought what they call a sufficient number of doses of this enhanced booster. But the concern is that because more money has not been allocated from Congress for these COVID relief efforts, that at a certain point there may not be enough vaccine to go around. Now, of course, that’s assuming that there is demand for this vaccine, which remains to be seen.

Is anyone who has one booster able to get a second one now, or should they wait for these new boosters, these omicron-specific ones?

If you haven’t gotten your first or second booster, I would wait at least until the end of this week and see what’s happening. If the FDA gives these vaccines emergency use authorization, the CDC will probably decide next week whether to recommend its use. [It could be] available as early as the middle of the month. If it’s going to be a longer delay and we start seeing cases go up, then I would recommend not waiting on the vaccines. The boosters that we have right now have done a very good job of protecting folks from hospitalizations and deaths.

Federal government health officials are hoping to roll these boosters out just after Labor Day. What is it that they have their sights set on? Is there an outlook for the rest of this year or any projections? 

The projections I’ve seen are mid-September, but as you mentioned, health departments have lost funding that they had for these clinics to vaccinate folks. They are working on monkeypox. Our childhood immunization rates have gone down during the pandemic, so they’re working on that. And folks are burned out. I mean, there’s a lot of reasons why there may not be the be able to be the push that we saw back in January of last year when the first vaccines became available.

As we move into colder months, what’s the outlook for the virus itself? 

Well, you know, my crystal ball isn’t infallible, but of course, we are concerned. We usually see a rise in respiratory viral rates in the fall. School starts; kids are together; their hygiene may not be the best. They bring it home to mom and dad and grandma and grandpa. Colder weather with the lower humidity also can contribute to more spread of respiratory viruses. And then with omicron, there’s always the concern that a new variant will arise. But, you know, this virus has surprised us a lot of times, and we just don’t know what’s going to happen.

What do you tell people as the general public may have lost interest in keeping up with public health guidelines or considerations when it comes to vaccination?

Yeah, unfortunately, that’s human psychology, isn’t it? We can only deal with threats for so long. And, you know, we have our everyday lives. Unfortunately, as we head into this fall, which, as I said, may see an increase in cases, we’re also relaxing masking. The recommendations for quarantine have changed. We aren’t doing social distancing anymore. So there is that we’re going to see an increase in rates. We are losing in the United States around 450 people every single day due to COVID. I think we as a society have to decide, is that acceptable, or are we going to really push to get the virus under control?

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