DHEC preparing for rollout of new COVID boosters to fight omicron

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Published: Sep. 1, 2022 at 8:51 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control is preparing for the rollout of new COVID-19 booster shots, which could be available in a few weeks.

On Thursday, a Centers for Disease Control advisory panel recommended these updated versions of both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna’s booster shots, which target the highly contagious BA.5 omicron variant in addition to the original strain of the virus.

Dr. Brannon Traxler, DHEC’s Public Health Director, said the agency is expected to receive around 50,000 doses of these new booster shots, which could be shipped early next week.

State health officials have been working with the existing vaccine sites in the state to determine which ones will be administering these shots.

Traxler said as the virus continues to mutate, this added layer of protection could be critical toward helping to curb another potential surge of the virus.

“Part of learning to live with this virus being endemic is the awareness that we are going to continue to have some surges,” she said. “However, we want them to stay as very small surges, little blips. And really they have the potential I think to become almost like the flu, a seasonal type of increase.”

People are eligible to receive these updated boosters if they have had their initial COVID-19 vaccination series, and it has been at least two months since their last primary vaccine or their latest booster.

Pfizer’s booster is for people 12 and up, while Moderna’s is for those 18 and older.

“This particular booster shows that we can get a vaccine to market within two months of finding a problematic variant,” Dr. Helmut Albrecht, an infectious disease specialist with Prisma Health, said. “And it also shows that the FDA, which has often been criticized for not being flexible enough, can actually be quite flexible and now two months after BA.5 has taken over, we have a vaccine that’s probably better adapted to this current strain.”

As of this week, just more than 50 percent of eligible South Carolinians have completed their initial COVID-19 vaccine series.

COVID-19-related hospitalization numbers, though trending down in the last month, are 40 percent higher than they were in mid-March.

Officials with Prisma Health, the largest hospital system in the state, say they are still seeing around one to two COVID-19-related deaths per day on average.

These boosters have been tested in mice, but clinical trials in humans are not yet complete.

“This is what we do for other vaccines,” Traxler said. “Although it’s not an mRNA vaccine, if you think about it the flu vaccine every year is updated to the newest and most common strains, and yet there’s not time every year to do updated clinical trials on it. But it remains very safe.”

According to Traxler, there is no increased risk with these shots when compared to the previous versions of the COVID-19 vaccines, which she said are “extremely safe and effective.”

Albrecht said this should not be a concern because both Pfizer and Moderna have experiencing developing similar bivalent, or combination, vaccines in the past.

He said this update to the COVID-19 vaccine recipe could be an important step in the fight against the virus.

The same thought process that goes into taking seasonal flu shots could be used for COVID-19, Albrecht said.

“We cannot give 12 boosters a year, but if a new, significantly different variant comes out once a year, twice a year, that can be answered with adapting the vaccine much more quickly than we have in the past,” he said.

But, Albrecht said, key questions remain: how often will new variants emerge, and will enough people be willing to get these booster shots for it to have a significant impact?

Traxler said it is not too late for the nearly 40 percent of eligible South Carolinians who have not yet begun their COVID-19 vaccine series to do so.

“I don’t want people thinking that they’re behind or any of that,” she said. “They can absolutely go and get started.”

Traxler said early fall would be a good time to get the first shot because there could be more variants of the virus and increased spread as the weather gets colder.

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