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Omicron-targeting COVID-19 boosters: Here’s what you should know

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By MAX EGENER
Oregon Capital Bureau

New COVID-19 boosters that target the most common omicron strains have arrived in Oregon, and eligible people are now able to schedule appointments to receive shots.

The Western states workgroup on Friday, Sept. 2, approved the new “bivalent” COVID-19 boosters for people 12 and older after federal officials approved the vaccines the day before.

Using the same technology as the original vaccines, the bivalent vaccines are designed to protect against both the original virus and the recent omicron subvariants, BA.4 and BA.5, which are both currently dominant in Oregon.

The new vaccines are the first update to the original COVID-19 vaccines, which were first made available in late 2020.

Health officials say the original vaccines still offer protection against severe illness and death, especially in younger and healthier people who have gotten at least one booster. But the effectiveness of the original vaccines has waned as new COVID-19 variants have emerged and as more time passes since people’s last dose.

The updated vaccines can only be used as a booster, not as someone’s first-ever COVID-19 vaccination.

They are a single dose that can be administered at least two months after someone’s initial vaccine series, first booster or infection with COVID-19. They can be administered regardless of which vaccines people originally received. The Moderna bivalent booster is available for adults and the Pfizer-BioNTech is available for people 12 and older.

“With fall and winter approaching with circulation of COVID-19 anticipated to increase, when most of us will spend more time indoors, the availability of safe and effective vaccine boosters offers us strong protection against the worst outcomes of COVID-19, including severe illness, hospitalizations and death,” Dr. Dean Sidelinger, state epidemiologist with the Oregon Health Authority, said on Thursday, Sept. 1.

The state pre-ordered 77,000 doses of the updated boosters, some of which have arrived, and additional shipments are expected in the coming days and weeks. OHA officials expect the state’s supply of the vaccines to meet demand.

Some vaccination clinics will begin administering the updated boosters starting Wednesday, Sept. 7, according to the OHA.

Some pharmacies such as Walgreens are already making appointments for the updated boosters available.

OHA officials are planning to open three high-volume vaccination sites across the state to administer the vaccine. The locations of the site have not yet been announced.

People also can use the OHA’s Get Vaccinated Oregon tool to find vaccine appointments.

With fall approaching and a new school year under way, Multnomah County health officials are urging people to be up-to-date on their COVID-19 vaccinations.

Mortality during omicron waves has been relatively low, as well as the number of people needing intensive care relative to how many people are hospitalized, Dr. Jennifer Vines, Multnomah County health officer, told the county board of commissioners at a briefing Tuesday, Aug. 30.

But the death rate has been highest among unvaccinated people, particularly older men, Vines said.

“Key point here: Get vaccinated and get your booster,” she said.

While more than 90% of people age 65 and older have completed an initial COVID-19 vaccine series, far fewer people in the age group have received boosters — 75%, according to OHA data.

Additionally, disparities in booster dose uptake exist among different demographic groups.

While nearly 61% of white Multnomah County residents have been boosted, only 46.5% of American Indian/Alaska Natives, 39% of Black/African Americans and 32.8% of Hispanic/Latinos have received boosters. Additionally, 53% of Asians have been boosted. The highest uptake of the vaccine has been Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders, with 84.6% of the group being boosted.

County health officials say their goals heading into fall are to decrease mortality among people of color, keep children in school, continue outbreak responses in high-risk settings and continue to rely on local epidemiology to inform decision-making.

For updates on vaccination sites and to schedule appointments, visit the OHA’s COVID-19 blog.

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