The latest version of the COVID-19 vaccine is expected to hit Baltimore pharmacies as early as this weekend, as hospitalizations from the virus continue to rise across the region.
Unlike the last booster shot, which was approved around this time last year and protected people against two strains of the virus, the new mRNA vaccine only targets one strain — the omicron variant, XBB.1.5. However, studies indicate the shots also protect against the widely circulating “Eris” variant, now the most dominant strain in the country.
Everyone 6 months and older should get the new vaccine, regardless of whether they’ve been inoculated previously against the virus, according to recommendations Tuesday from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Both children 6 months to 4 years old and people who are moderately to severely immunocompromised, who haven’t been vaccinated, are advised to get a primary series with two Moderna doses or three Pfizer-BioNTech doses, the CDC said.
People who have been vaccinated recently should wait two months before getting an updated vaccine, and those who have been infected recently can wait three months — or can get the jab as soon as they’re feeling better.
Before the public health emergency ended in May, the federal government purchased COVID-19 vaccines and provided them for free to everyone, regardless of their insurance coverage or ability to pay. That’s no longer the case, but the new vaccine is covered by insurance, including private insurance, Medicare and Medicaid plans.
The Maryland Department of Health continues to monitor the spread of the coronavirus, spokesman Chase Cook said in an email. Hospitalizations have increased for seven straight weeks, Cook said — 291 people were hospitalized statewide with the virus as of Monday — but they remain below the surge seen last summer.
The state also confirmed 17 COVID-related deaths so far in September.
This year’s late summer COVID wave mirrors ones seen in previous years, said Dr. Gregory Schrank, an epidemiologist at the University of Maryland Medical Center and assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine who specializes in infectious diseases.
If the spread follows historical patterns, Schrank said, he expects to see a “leveling off” of hospitalizations in the next four to six weeks, before the winter respiratory virus season starts sometime after Thanksgiving.
It’s hard to predict whether there will be an early start to the spread of RSV and the flu, as there was last year, he said, but barring any significant changes to the coronavirus, he doesn’t anticipate seeing a wave of illness anywhere near the magnitude seen in the first two years of the pandemic.
“But certainly we’ll see some activity and we’ll unfortunately see some hospitalizations and deaths, especially amongst those who are most vulnerable to all of these types of illness,” he said.
Local health departments and doctors will face another challenge this fall as they encourage a pandemic-weary public to get the newest COVID vaccine. Though around 81% of the U.S. population have gotten at least one dose of a vaccine, only about 17% received the last updated booster, according to CDC data.
The story behind the decreasing uptake of vaccines is complicated, Schrank said. Earlier in the pandemic, fear was a significant motivator for people to get vaccinated. Now, with the virus an older and more familiar threat, the feeling holds less power as an inspiration to act.
That’s how it should be, said Dr. Michael Zollicoffer, a pediatrician in Baltimore who runs his own practice. His patients are still recovering from the trauma of surviving the pandemic. They don’t need more anxiety right now. Instead, Zollicoffer said, health officials should talk about COVID-19 vaccinations the same way they discuss other regular health maintenance activities, like getting an annual flu shot.
The Morning Sun
“People are so weary right now of the fear of it all,” Zollicoffer said, “and they need to get out of the major, major mental anvil that’s been sitting on their heads for so long about what’s going on.”
While the Baltimore City Health Department doesn’t yet know when it will receive its vaccine supply, officials don’t anticipate similar procurement issues as they encountered with flu shots this year, Acting Health Commissioner Mary Beth Haller said in an emailed statement. That’s because the health department will acquire the COVID vaccines through the CDC’s Bridge Access Program, which allows the Maryland Department of Health to distribute federally purchased vaccines to local health departments to vaccinate uninsured and underinsured adults.
To ensure that as many Baltimoreans get vaccinated as possible, the city health department plans to continue hosting vaccine clinics in partnership with local schools, churches, senior centers and community nonprofits, Haller said in her emailed statement. The department hosts mobile vaccine clinics across the city and runs a “homebound program” to get people vaccinated at home.
“We constantly share information with each other, empower the voices of neighborhood leaders, generate media, maintain a strong online presence, and encourage residents to continuously spread the word about best practices like vaccinating, testing, and masking,” Haller said. “With an uptick in infections and hospitalizations, that won’t change — because neither has COVID’s risk to our residents.”
Schrank, the University of Maryland Medical Center epidemiologist, encouraged everyone to get vaccinated to help “retrain” their immune system to fight back against the virus. In doing so, people can protect themselves from a bad illness, as well as their loved ones who may be older, immunocompromised or children who already have missed out on months of education because of the pandemic.
People can get their flu and COVID shots together to save time, he said. And, he said, they should feel very confident in the safety of the vaccines.
“These vaccines have been studied again and again in clinical trials over the past few years,” he said. “They’re some of the most scrutinized medications in the history of the Earth.”