Older and immunocompromised Utahns are now eligible for a second COVID-19 booster shot, thanks to federal authorities quickly authorizing the additional vaccine doses as the subvariant of the virus known as “stealth omicron” continues to spread across the county.
Both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention signed off Tuesday on additional booster doses for all Americans 50 and older, along with those as young as 12 who are also immunocompromised due to certain medical conditions.
But an Intermountain Healthcare doctor said some Utahns may want to wait before getting another booster.
“They don’t have to rush to get it. We’re nicely in a lower incident time so we have time,” said Dr. Tamara Sheffield, medical director of preventive medicine for Intermountain Healthcare. She advised Utahns ages 50-64, who are at less risk for severe illness or death, to talk with their doctors about whether they need the shot now.
“It’s really just how much benefit will you get. Is the benefit most if you get it now to protect you in this current environment, or is it better to wait a month or two,” Sheffield said. “That is the one downside, is if you get it now, and we don’t see the outbreak again for months, you’re not as well protected” at that point.
The doctor said the federal agencies acted fast on a second booster shot to be ready for another COVID-19 surge.
The omicron subvariant, known as BA.2 by scientists, is driving case counts up in Europe and is now responsible for nearly 55% of all U.S. COVID-19 cases, and almost 37% of cases in the region that includes Utah, according to CDC estimations for the week that began March 26.
But Sheffield said the state may not see a big spike from the subvariant, because COVID-19 cases are now so low, down to a rolling seven-day average of 113 a day, according to the Utah Department of Health, and so many Utahns were exposed to omicron during the record-breaking surge in January, developing at least some immunity.
“We need to stress that people who are at most risk right now are people who have not had their primary doses, or their first booster. Those are the people at highest risk,” she said. “And those are the individuals who really need to come in right now and get their vaccine.”
Currently, less than 62% of all Utahns are fully vaccinated, meaning they’ve received the initial doses available to anyone 5 and older. Less than 28% of all Utahns have also received a booster shot, limited to those 12 and older. That number is higher among older Utahns, but still, just 43.5% of Utahns 50-59 have gotten a booster shot.
Han Kim, a professor of public health at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, said he’s still not convinced Utah will see a huge surge from the BA.2 variant. But he said there’s “no downside” to going ahead and getting a second booster shot, even though immunity from the extra dose could wane before the next wave hits.
“That’s going to be kind of the name of the game from now on. We’re going to be taking boosters,” he said, adding, “I don’t think it’s a bad idea to get your immune system topped off.”
The shots may not be available until later this week. Intermountain Healthcare, the region’s largest health care provider, is waiting for clinical guidance, such as detailed dosage information, from the CDC before offering the booster shots, Sheffield said.
Tuesday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized a second booster shot of the Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine for people 50 and older as well as for those who are immunocompromised due to an organ transplant or have other medical conditions that similarly increase their risk of severe disease or death.
The timeline for the additional shot is at least four months after a first booster dose.
“Current evidence suggests some waning of protection over time against serious outcomes from COVID-19 in older and immunocompromised individuals,” Dr. Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, said in a statement.
Marks said the extra dose could help increase protection levels for these high-risk individuals, “based on an analysis of emerging data.”
The agency said data from Israel showed no new safety concerns from the approximately 700,000 fourth doses of the Pfizer vaccine given in that country, mostly to people 60 or older. Nor did an independently conducted study of a fourth dose of the Moderna vaccine in participants 18 and older.
The FDA had previously approved a fourth shot for the severely immunocompromised. For the immunocompromised who qualify for a fifth dose, the Pfizer booster is available for those 12 and older, while the Moderna booster is only for those 18 and older.
Hours after the FDA backed the additional booster shots, the CDC announced it was updating its vaccine recommendations and added adults who received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine and the same vaccine as a booster to the list.