Phoenix is getting ready for round three in the battle against COVID-19.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Wednesday that booster shots of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will be recommended for everyone starting as early as Sept. 20, at least eight months after a patient has received their second dose; Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine is not yet included as more data becomes available.
The announcement came on the heels of a similar announcement on Friday rolling out booster shots for the immunocompromised 28 days following their second dose, as the highly transmissible Delta variant continues to wreak havoc on the health care system in Arizona and across the U.S. The CDC released three new studies that showed each vaccine’s waning protection against the variant. One, from Mayo Clinic patient data from Minnesota, showed in July, when Delta was prevalent, Moderna’s vaccine was 76% effective against infection and Pfizer’s was 42%.
In a Friday blog post, outgoing Arizona Department of Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ wrote a recent study suggested that nearly half of breakthrough cases in the U.S. requiring hospitalization are immunocompromised individuals who make up 3% of the U.S. population.
“These third doses will be handled the way people are now receiving COVID-19 vaccinations: at pharmacies, clinics and other providers,” she wrote. “There is ample vaccine throughout Arizona to accommodate immunocompromised individuals and those who have yet to get vaccinated. Vaccines are safe, free and highly effective.”
Christ said providers should attempt to match the additional dose type to the two-dose series that person received, but using the other vaccine for the additional dose is permitted if circumstances warrant. Pfizer is currently the only vaccine approved for anyone ages 12 to 18.
Dr. Michael White, the chief medical officer for Valleywise Health in Phoenix, said Valleywise’s medical center and community health clinics have begun offering booster shots to the immunocompromised.
“We have begun to be able to offer that to our patients that fall within that category,” he said during a Wednesday news conference. “We have seen some. I can’t give you exact numbers but certainly the requests are starting to come in.”
While information about boosters for the general population is slow to roll in, White estimated the prioritization would look similar to the initial vaccine rollout at the end of 2020, which started with the elderly and frontline workers, as well as those with high-risk illnesses.
But, White said, the necessity of a third dose should not be alarming, as boosters are needed for most vaccines and the flu shot is encouraged annually.
“We’re continuing to learn and learn more about how these vaccines are, the longevity of these vaccines and how effective they are,” he said. “So, this is something that is not uncommon that we would have to do something like this for these types of viruses in the future.”
In addition to Valleywise clinics and other community health clinics across the Phoenix metro area, CVS Health and Walgreens are offering third doses as well. Spokespersons for both pharmacies confirmed Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are available to the immunocompromised following Friday’s announcement.
Patients will need to bring their vaccination cards and attest to their immunocompromised status. Registration can be done online, where patients can identify a nearby pharmacy offering their preferred vaccine.
The same goes for the Vincere Cancer Center, which has partnered with the city of Phoenix since the start of the pandemic to offer free testing and vaccinations through pop-up events and mobile clinics. The center, along with the city, is planning a big event Friday at the John F. Long Family Services Center, 3454 N. 51st Ave. in Phoenix.
Third doses will be offered, as well as first and second, according to Dr. Vushalee Shukla, co-founder of Vincere Cancer Center, who lauded both CDC announcements.
“I’m very happy with the news, obviously, as a cancer doctor,” she said. “A lot of my cancer patients, they undergo immunotherapy and they just are immunocompromised and so this allows them to have a little bit more protection against the Delta variant. And studies show that the third shot or the booster shot is even more effective against the Delta so it’s going to offer those people a lot more protection.”
Like CVS and Walgreens, Shukla said those who say they are immunocompromised will be entering into an “honor system,” and each patient will be taken on a case-by-case basis. Regardless, she said they have a more-than-adequate vaccine supply to begin offering boosters to this vulnerable population, as well as first and second doses to those not yet fully vaccinated.
Approximately 54.5% of Arizonans are vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Wednesday, though just 39.2% of Maricopa County residents have been vaccinated.
But not every provider has been so quick to jump in headfirst.
Tomás León, president of Equality Health, said third doses are not yet available at their community health clinics or many pop-up events, though plans to do so are in the works.
“We just want to make sure that we’re asking the right questions, that we’re determining who is immunocompromised that needs the third vaccine,” he said, adding that Equality Health is currently working with ADHS on plans. “So it’s more of a process. We’re not concerned about the inventory of vaccines that we have right now with the expected demand.”
León expects the third dose to be offered as soon as early September, not long before the general population could gain access.
While Equality is not yet offering boosters, León said the organization is more focused than ever on offering layers of protection against the virus as it continues its spread.
That includes prevention practices such as masks and social distancing, testing, and vaccinations.
“The Delta variant threw a curveball at us,” he said. “We thought we were in the last mile and then the Delta variant added many more miles here that we’re gonna have to battle. So now we’re just focused on layers of protection.”