A supply of updated COVID-19 vaccine boosters — the first to specifically target the more-contagious Omicron variant of the virus — is slowly trickling into pharmacies across Wisconsin.
State health officials are encouraging people to make appointments as soon as they can, saying supply and the number of available appointments are expected to increase greatly over the coming days and weeks.
The state health department has requested 114,000 booster shots from the federal government — the maximum allowed — and has started the work of doling them out to local vaccine providers.
At the same time, a number of private pharmacies with direct contracts with the federal government have received doses and are already taking appointments and walk-ins.
What to know about the new Omicron-targeted COVID boosters
The boosters are recommended for all people who had their last booster or completed the initial two-dose vaccine series at least two months ago, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state Department of Health Services.
Pfizer’s new booster is authorized for use in people 12 and older, and the Moderna booster is approved for those 18 and older.
“These updated boosters are recommended to help ensure more people across the U.S. will be better protected against COVID-19,” said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer of DHS’s Bureau of Communicable Diseases. “As the weather cools down and we begin to make plans to spend more time indoors, we encourage everyone who’s eligible to make a plan to get their updated COVID-19 booster this fall.”
As of Wednesday, at least two local pharmacies had received their first shipments of the booster shots and had started distributing them, with more anticipated from the state in a matter of hours or days.
Milwaukee area pharmacies receiving booster shipments, city health department waiting
At Infinity Pharmacy on Milwaukee’s southwest side, pharmacist and owner Mawra Bakr said she received 600 doses of the new Moderna booster Friday and 600 doses of the Pfizer booster Wednesday.
Demand for the shots has been strong: Bakr said the pharmacy has already administered 100 doses of Moderna since getting it Friday. The pharmacy is offering extended hours for people to come in and get the shots, and appointments are available on its website. Walk-ins are also welcome at 2700 S. 60th St.
“We just want to make it easy for everyone,” Bakr said, adding that now is a great time for teachers and students to get their updated shots as the school year ramps up.
Infinity is one of several pharmacies that was able to order the vaccine early through a direct contract with the federal government.
“Compared to two years ago, we have a much more diverse system of getting vaccine allocated to the state,” Westergaard said.
As of Wednesday morning, a Milwaukee Health Department spokeswoman said the city hadn’t yet received its supply of the new boosters, but that it could come as early as later Wednesday or as late as Monday.
Hashim Zaibak, founder and lead pharmacist at Hayat Pharmacy, 807 W. Layton Ave., said the pharmacy has about 300 doses of the Pfizer booster and is expecting “a lot more” to come from the state later Wednesday.
Hayat is only accepting walk-ins. At any given time, he said two to three people are coming in asking for the new shot.
“(It’s) definitely better protection for the Omicron variant,” Zaibak said. “(The booster) is a combination of the Omicron plus the older ones. Since CDC is saying that more than 75% of the current cases are from Omicron, this definitely will give you better protection.”
New boosters not recommended yet for children
Moderna and Pfizer’s old COVID-19 boosters are no longer authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, so people can only receive the new ones if they want a booster.
The only exception is in children who are too young to get the new shots but are eligible for the old ones. The FDA said it wants more data from Pfizer and Moderna before recommending the boosters for younger children, according to STAT.
Dr. Smriti Khare, a pediatrician and the chief mental and behavioral health officer at Children’s Wisconsin, recommended that people get their flu shot and new booster dose at the same time, ideally before October. Khare is also a representative of the Wisconsin chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
In the last two weeks, Khare said, the number of confirmed pediatric cases of COVID-19 have gone up 14% nationwide, a reminder that the pandemic is still ongoing.
She also reiterated that the vaccines are safe and effective, acknowledging some worries among the public around the idea that the newest boosters were not specifically tested in humans before they were approved.
Boosters are ‘tweaked’ versions of original COVID vaccines
The boosters are “tweaked” versions of the original shots, she said, not entirely new vaccines. Experts have “a tremendous amount of experience” with the technology that underlies the vaccines, she said.
“It’s not dissimilar to what we do with influenza and actually the influenza vaccine changes every year without human trials,” Khare said. “What is reassuring is with the new COVID-19 vaccines, there’s actually going to be ongoing human trials that are actually entering the phase three right now.”
Doctors are keeping a close eye on a rare but serious side effect seen in some people — most commonly seen in adolescent boys — called myocarditis. So far, data has shown that in the rare cases in which this inflammation of the heart muscle appears, it generally resolves itself very quickly, Khare said. She also noted that the rate of the same complication in COVID-19 patients is much higher.
“We are very comfortable in recommending this (vaccine) to parents,” Khare said.