‘Get them both’: Local health officials begin offering updated COVID-19 boosters, flu shots

Local health officials and pharmacies are starting to administer updated COVID-19 boosters targeting the most common omicron strains in what they hope will blunt an expected winter surge of the virus that continues to kill people in the Columbus area.

Late last month, the Food and Drug Administration authorized updated Pfizer boosters targeting omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 for anyone 12 or older who has received an initial two-dose vaccination or booster shot at least two months ago. Adults 18 or older also can get the updated Moderna booster if it has been at least two months since their last vaccination.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the eligibility requirements shortly thereafter.

Columbus Regional Health has received doses of Pfizer’s omicron booster and plans to start administering the new shots this week at doctor’s offices, hospital officials said.

The Bartholomew County Health Department has received an initial shipment of 300 doses of both the Pfizer and Moderna omicron boosters and has already started administering them.

“Individuals need to call to schedule an appointment,” said Amanda Organist, director of nursing at the Bartholomew County Health Department.

As of Friday, there were numerous appointment slots available for the new boosters at the CVS pharmacies at 2423 N. National Road and inside Target at 1865 N. National Road, as well as Walgreens at 2140 W. Jonathan Moore Pike, according to the pharmacy chains’ websites.

Officials say people can get their flu and COVID-19 shots at the same time.

“That is perfectly safe,” said CRH spokeswoman Kelsey DeClue. “…In fact, it’s kind of what we recommend.”

“Just get them both when they’re available,” DeClue added.

The arrival of the new boosters comes at yet another critical moment of the pandemic, as health officials prepare for another possible coronavirus surge, flu season and “just higher numbers of illness that we see in general across the board in those winter months.”

Federal officials have said this latest round of shots will offer protection during the busy cold and flu season, with the hope of transitioning people to get the vaccine yearly, The Associated Press reported. Typically, at least half of U.S. adults get a flu shot.

“We expect them to provide more durable protection over time,” White House COVID-19 coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha told The Associated Press. “The goal very much is to get to a point where people get their COVID shot on a regular basis, the way they do their flu shot.”

Locally, health officials are preparing for the possibility of another surge in disease, as well as the possibility for a rough flu season and an increase in other illnesses once temperatures start to drop.

“We’re always preparing for (surges),” DeClue said. “…What begins to cause issues and heighten that level of concern is just the higher numbers of illness that we see in general across the board in those winter months. And so that’s when resources and space become more worrisome at that point when we typically have higher in-patient numbers anyway.”

“We might have a pretty rough flu season on our hands, too,” DeClue added.

In the meantime, the coronavirus continues to kill people in the Columbus area.

A total of 24 people in Bartholomew County and the surrounding area have died from COVID-19 since June, according to the Indiana Department of Health.

That includes seven Bartholomew County residents, seven Jennings County residents, four Jackson County residents, four Decatur County residents, and one resident each in Brown and Shelby counties.

There were 10 people hospitalized with COVID-19 at CRH on Wednesday, after dipping into the single digits for much of September, according to the most recent update from the local COVID-19 Community Task Force.

The updated shots are only for use as a booster, not for someone’s first-ever vaccinations, according to wire reports. The original COVID-19 vaccines still offer strong protection against severe illness and death, especially among younger and healthier people who’ve gotten at least one booster.

But those vaccines were designed to target the virus strain that circulated in early 2020. Effectiveness drops as new mutants emerge and more time passes since someone’s last shot. Since April, hospitalization rates in people over age 65 have jumped, the CDC said.

The new U.S. boosters are combination, or “bivalent,” shots. They contain half that original vaccine recipe and half protection against the newest omicron versions, BA.4 and BA.5, that are considered the most contagious yet.

It’s not clear how many people will want an updated shot, according to wire reports. Just half of vaccinated Americans got the first recommended booster dose, and only a third of those 50 and older who were urged to get a second booster did so.

In Bartholomew County, nearly 53% of vaccinated people ages 5 and up got their first booster shot, and just 37% of people ages 50 and up got their second booster dose, according to the CDC.

About 26,000 Bartholomew County residents have yet to get vaccinated at all against COVID-19, according to CDC estimates.