The expectation is that eligible residents will be able to get the new Omicron-specific COVID booster shots come mid-September.
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After Labor Day, California health officials expect to quickly get to work on the next expansive phase of the COVID-19 vaccination campaign: distributing and administering newly authorized, Omicron-specific booster shots.
While there are still a few hurdles to clear before officials start doling out the doses, the expectation is that eligible residents will be able to roll up their sleeves come mid-September.
“I’m hoping it is that soon,” Santa Cruz County Deputy Health Officer David Ghilarducci told Lookout earlier this week about the vaccine’s availability within the next few weeks. “It may take a week or so to get down to the counties, but we don’t anticipate a delay beyond that.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday authorized the updated booster — a bivalent vaccine meant to target both the original coronavirus strain as well as the highly transmissible BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants.
“The COVID-19 vaccines, including boosters, continue to save countless lives and prevent the most serious outcomes, hospitalization and death, of COVID-19,” FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf said in a statement. “As we head into fall and begin to spend more time indoors, we strongly encourage anyone who is eligible to consider receiving a booster dose with a bivalent COVID-19 vaccine to provide better protection against currently circulating variants.”
The matter now goes to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which will undergo its own process to determine recommendations for who should be eligible for the shots. The agency’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices is scheduled to meet Thursday morning and by that afternoon vote on recommendations to provide to CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.
Pfizer has asked authorities to authorize its Omicron booster for those age 12 and up, while Moderna has asked for authorization for adults.
Walensky’s decision would be the final step on the federal level that would allow the shots to go into arms.
There’s usually an additional step in California and several other Western states. The Western States Scientific Safety Review Workgroup — a coalition of public health experts from California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington — also independently reviews and signs off on new vaccine or booster offerings, typically within a day or two of federal action.
While the original vaccines still do relatively well in keeping people out of the intensive care unit and dying, their effectiveness in preventing infection has declined over time because of the evolution of the Omicron strain.
BA.5, in particular, has proved to be not only highly transmissible but also able to reinfect those who recently got over a bout with a prior strain of the coronavirus. The CDC estimates that particular subvariant comprised 89% of coronavirus cases nationwide for the weeklong period that ended Saturday.
The updated boosters, which have been anticipated for months, are designed specifically to combat BA.5 as well as the less-common BA.4 Omicron subvariant.
At a recent forum, White House COVID-19 response coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha said the new booster represents a potentially substantial upgrade in the vaccine “in terms of their ability to prevent infection, to prevent transmission, certainly to prevent serious illness and death.”
Generally, many officials and experts recommend getting a booster as soon as you’re eligible — particularly if you’re at higher risk of severe health consequences from COVID-19.
But others may decide to wait a bit, until October or November, as the booster’s potency will likely wane over time, as has been the case with other vaccine doses.
Peak effectiveness will likely be in the four or five months following the shot, with the maximum effectiveness one month after the injection, said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, a UC San Francisco infectious disease expert.
In the pandemic’s first fall-and-winter wave, coronavirus cases in California began increasing in November and accelerated sharply in December. In last year’s fall-and-winter wave, cases began spiking in December.
For now, California seems headed into a relative lull in coronavirus transmission that has also been observed in past late summers and early autumns.
Coronavirus case rates are continuing to fall. For the seven-day period that ended Tuesday, the state reported an average of 8,119 new coronavirus cases per day, a decrease of 32% compared to two weeks ago, according to data compiled by The Times.
Santa Cruz County is no different. Local cases continue to drop, with the county recording 1,141 active cases as of Monday’s update from the Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency, 162 fewer than last Monday. Two new deaths have been reported locally, raising the county’s pandemic total to 270.
Since Omicron’s initial fall-and-winter punch faded, California and the nation as a whole have been hit with a parade of increasingly infectious subvariants that fought each other for dominance. The late spring saw the emergence of BA.2 and BA.2.12.1, which transitioned directly into the summer season of BA.4 and BA.5 with no respite.
At the moment, though, there don’t appear to be any signs that another shoe is about to drop. Two newer subvariants, BA.4.6 and BA.2.75, have yet to outcompete BA.5 to any meaningful degree.
“There are no new subvariants or sub-lineages that appear likely to overtake BA.5 given the current pattern,” Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Tuesday. “This is an encouraging sign, especially when viewed in light of our decreasing cases, and it may allow for further decline in transmission.”
Still, because all currently circulating subvariants have the ability to reinfect people who have had COVID-19 earlier, Ferrer said she continued to recommend masking in indoor public settings, getting tested when ill and isolating at home when you have COVID-19, gathering outdoors instead of indoors, opening windows and turning on air filters when indoors, and taking rapid tests before gathering indoors and before and after travel.
“I do feel much better about where we are today than where we’ve been for quite a while,” Ferrer said. “Particularly this year ... we just moved very quickly from one variant to another without getting a real break. I think we’re getting a break now.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.