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New COVID booster shots now available, but vaccine landscape is changing

man receives a COVID-19 vaccine shot in his right arm
Spectrum Health

New COVID-19 vaccine boosters that offer more protection against the omicron variant of the virus are arriving in Michigan right now.

But things are different from when the first wave of the original vaccine and its boosters came through. There won’t be an all-out push from public health agencies to get people vaccinated through mass vaccination clinics. These shots will go directly to physician’s offices and pharmacies.

According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the first 1,200 doses that have already arrived are going to pharmacies. The state has been allotted 263,000 doses of the omicron booster so far, and more may be allotted through the federal pharmacy program.

For now, the shots are still free to everyone regardless of insurance or immigration status. But that could change early next year, when the federal government plans to stop covering the cost of COVID vaccines and treatments and shift the costs to insurers.

Dr. Matthew Sims, director of infectious disease research for Beaumont Health, said that “will potentially create some barriers.”

“If we really want this as a way to help cut down the cases because it's a better match [to the current dominant strain of COVID], it should cut transmission more. … It's only going to do so much if people can't get it because they can't afford it,” Sims said.

Michigan’s COVID vaccination rate is below the national average, with about 61% of the population considered fully-vaccinated. The national average is 68%. Fewer than 36% of Michigan residents over 5 have received a booster dose, according to the state's data.

Sims said the new “bivalent” booster is a combination of the original vaccine, and one that’s been tweaked to target the current BA.4 and BA.5 strains of omicron. He said this specific booster wasn’t tested in a full-scale clinical trial, but the principle behind how it was developed isn’t new. “This is what we do every year with the flu shot,” he said. “And it's also the only way we're going to potentially get ahead of this virus.”

The Pfizer version of the bivalent booster is available to people ages 12 and up, while the Moderna version is for ages 18 and up. They're meant for people who have gotten their last coronavirus vaccine at least 60 days earlier.

Sims said that for now, the bivalent booster is just that — a booster. People can only get it if they have the primary dose of two shots of the vaccine that targets the initial strain of the coronavirus.

Sims wondered if that’s the best strategy. “I really wonder why we're not giving it twice the way we give the regular vaccine,” he said. “You get it to prime your immune system, and then you get it again to boost your immune system. That’s what we do with the regular COVID vaccine. So I'm not really sure why they made the decision to dose it the way they're dosing it.”

As for expanding vaccination coverage at this point, “it's really up to physicians and other health care providers to get the vaccine,” Sims said.

He said those in high-risk groups should try to get it “immediately,” whereas those who are lower-risk should get it but can wait a few weeks. The only exceptions are those who just had COVID, who should “wait a bit,” Sims advised, or those who had a severe reaction to the original vaccine.

Sims and other experts say COVID-19 vaccines continue to provide good protection against severe outcomes, including hospitalization and death, but immunity does wane over time. Current statewide data for outcomes based on vaccination status are difficult to come by, but hospital systems do track them. Currently, of the 210 COVID-positive patients hospitalized at Beaumont hospitals, 120 are unvaccinated, 40 are fully-vaccinated, and 50 are vaccinated with a booster.

MDHHS said that “additional guidance will be available this week for providers and Michiganders on the bivalent vaccine.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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