Virginia’s vaccine leader explains boosters, expects smoother rollout

Published: Aug. 19, 2021 at 7:02 PM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - We’ve learned this week COVID-19 vaccine booster shots could become available as soon as a month from now.

But what needs to happen first and how prepared is Virginia to get you that shot?

According to Virginia’s vaccine leader, Dr. Danny Avula, the booster could come as soon as September 20. Experts at the FDA and CDC are considering booster shots for three reasons:

1) In a review of ongoing data collections, the vaccine efficacy against infection appears to decrease over time.

2) The efficacy is particularly affected by the spread of the Delta variant.

3) But the efficacy of the vaccines to prevent hospitalization and death remains high.

This is not an immediate decrease in efficacy, as Dr. Avula explained to reporters Thursday. He said this is inherent to vaccine science, meaning it’s not totally unexpected.

Let’s first break down an explanation of the booster versus a third shot for immunosuppressed Virginians, because while they are the same recipe, they are serving different purposes.

A third dose is available right now for people who are immunosuppressed, such as transplant recipients or cancer patients. This is because, Dr. Avula explained, their bodies likely did not mount enough of a defense after only two shots. They can get their third dose of the mRNA vaccine, the Pfizer or Moderna version, at least 28 days after their second dose.

By comparison, booster shots of Pfizer and Moderna for everyone else still need FDA’s thumbs up, plus additional endorsements by independent advisory committees and the CDC. That is expected to come around September 20. Your eligibility begins eight months after your second dose.

Dr. Avula also said Thursday Virginia will be in a much better position this time around to get Virginians a booster shot, because there is more supply than providers expected.

“The federal government has very much reassured us that supply is not an issue,” he said. “That there is enough vaccine for a third dose for every American. And, you know, we just need to remember that that means this will be a very different scenario than what we were working with from December to March.”

Dr. Avula estimated the highest number of Virginians will be eligible for their boosters sometime in late December, a total of about 320,000 people. That is lower than the 520,000 or so first-dose vaccines given at the height of distribution earlier this year. He also said the state has readied about 2,700 providers to help administer vaccines. He said the state already has about a million doses on hand and can draw down more, but was unclear how many the federal government has stored versus how much production might need to ramp up.

Avula said there is a role the Virginia Department of Health can play in reminding people when they might be eligible for their booster, but also suggested individuals keep track. Whether people are eligible for a third dose because of their health status or eligible for a booster because of the length of time passed will be something Avula said they will rely on the patients to determine, along with assistance from their doctors. But vaccine administrators are largely being instructed to take people at their word. He said the state should likely be able to track third dose administration on the VDH website.

Overall, Dr. Avula stressed getting the first vaccine is actually still the highest priority right now.

“Even though the current news is all about boosters and what kind of planning we’re going to do for the next couple of months, I don’t want to lose the importance of the fact that people getting that first dose is actually way more important in the long run to progressing beyond this pandemic,” he said. “That we really need people who have not yet been vaccinated to get there.”

If you got the J&J or a different vaccine overseas and you’re wondering about your 3rd dose or booster, Dr. Avula explained that’s still under review and guidance would be forthcoming.

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