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As COVID Booster Shots Become Available, Here’s What Kansas And Missouri Residents Should Know

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Studies of a possible COVID-19 vaccine are now or soon will be underway.

Biden administration officials announced plans for COVID-19 booster shots to be made widely available starting September 20. But local health departments and experts are scrambling to keep up with the latest guidance and research.

Starting in September, booster shots of the COVID-19 vaccine will be available for all teens and adults in the U.S., federal officials announced on Wednesday. The news arrived just a few days after booster shots were authorized for people who have compromised immune systems.

The shots are meant to provide additional protection as the delta variant drives a new case surge. However, some experts say data supporting the use of the booster is still limited, and health departments are scrambling to keep up with the changing recommendations.

Here’s what people in Kansas and Missouri need to know about booster shots.

Who will be able to get the shots?

Biden administration officials on Wednesday outlined plans for COVID-19 booster shots to be made widely available starting on September 20. The guidance applies to the mRNA vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna.

People would be eligible for booster shots starting eight months after they received their last shot, explained Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, although the rollout would need to be authorized by federal regulators. Health care workers, nursing home residents and older people would get first access, and other groups would follow.

On August 12, the Food and Drug Administration authorized booster shots for people who have compromised immune systems,and shots for these people are currently available in Kansas and Missouri. This group includes people receiving cancer treatment, organ or stem cell transplant recipients, people who have immunodeficiency, those with HIV, and people taking medications that suppress immune response.

Why are the boosters needed?

The immunity offered by existing COVID-19 vaccines appear to decline over time, according to data presented by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday. The studies indicate that, while the mRNA vaccines are still effective against hospitalizations, people who have received them seem to currently be more susceptible to infection than earlier research indicated.

That waning immunity may be due to the more-contagious delta variant, reduced efficacy of the vaccines, and/or people taking fewer precautions than earlier in the pandemic.

Real-world studies that show declines in immunity among vaccinated people make clear the need for addition protection, according to Dr. Mary Anne Jackson, infectious disease specialist and dean of the University of Missouri – Kansas City School of Medicine.

“It wanes by about 6% each month after being fully vaccinated. So we see that, even within the general population, there is utility to a third dose,” Jackson said.

Does these mean the vaccines aren’t working?

Though the vaccines may not appear to be performing as well as initial research showed, they are still powerful tools for fighting the coronavirus, says Dr. Dana Hawkinson, infectious disease specialist at the University of Kansas Health System.

“Although they may not protect enough maybe against mild disease, what we’re really looking for is to decrease the burden of people missing work due to significant illness or the capacity issues with the hospitals,” Hawkinson said Wednesday on KCUR’s Up To Date.

Where are the booster shots being offered?

Many of the clinics and health departments that were already giving out first and second vaccine doses are now administering third doses for immunocompromised people.

Locations that have already announced they're offering booster shots include pharmacy chains, such as CVS and Walgreens, and public health departments, including in Johnson County and Wyandotte County, Kansas.

State officials in Missouri say they are now getting guidance from the federal government as they open access to booster shots and plan outreach.

“We’re listening now on what some of those plans regarding supply and pharmacy programs will look like,” Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services spokeswoman Lisa Cox told KCUR in an email.

What about people who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine?

The Biden administration's new recommendations are for people who received the mRNA vaccines, which include the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is not an mRNA vaccines, and Hawkinson acknowledged on Wednesday that data regarding the J&J vaccine remains limited.

He said that while there’s no official guidance on J&J recipients getting an mRNA booster, this appears to be safe.

“The official guidance is not to do anything,” Hawkinson said. “Unofficially, yes. It is probably very safe, will not add any harm. But what is the benefit? We just don’t have that answer.”

Does getting a booster shot create additional health risks?

No, booster shots don't carry extra risks, according to Gene Olinger, science advisor with MRI Global.

“It’s the same risk you have with the original indications within the vaccine platform itself that you’ve received,” Olinger said Up To Date. “Generally speaking, people can have various responses that are very similar to the original, or can actually be a lot less.”

Will we still need boosters specifically for the delta variant later on?

Though the delta variant is currently the most urgent cause for concern, Jackson says that new COVID-19 variants will continue to emerge.

She says that the booster shots will likely provide sufficient protection from the delta variant, but it’s possible future versions of the vaccine may be developed to contend with the changing virus.

“I’m concerned about the next variant that’s out there,” Jackson said. “That’s where I think we might see — although I don’t think it’s highly likely — a year from now, you’ll see a different vaccine.”

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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