The Chicago Department of Public Health could receive its first doses of an updated COVID-19 vaccine as early as Tuesday, pending the CDC’s final approval of the boosters developed by Moderna and Pfizer, and the city’s top doc is urging residents to queue up for jabs ASAP.
A key panel of experts — the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices — voted 13 to 1 in favor Thursday of the boosters, following similar clearance from the Federal Drug Administration. The vaccines now require sign-off from CDC Director Rochelle Walensky before they can be administered.
During a press briefing with reporters, Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, called the vaccines the “best possible match” against strains of the virus now in circulation. They’ve been formulated to provide immunity against the omicron variants BA.4 and BA.5, which account for nearly all of the cases of COVID-19 in the U.S.
While the previous vaccine and boosters did provide protection against hospitalization and death, breakthrough infections became common once omicron began to dominate, Arwady said. The new booster should decrease those infections.
“This is a big deal,” she said. “It gives us a chance to get ahead of the virus.”
As opposed to the original vaccine rollout back in 2021, when a scarcity of doses created competition for jabs that many likened to the “Hunger Games,” Chicago will receive enough supply of the new boosters to meet demand, Arwady said. Her concern this go-round is that the demand won’t materialize.
More than 75% of Chicagoans over the age of 12 completed their original vaccine cycle (two shots for Moderna and Pfizer; one shot for Johnson and Johnson). But far fewer rolled up their sleeves for the succeeding boosters.
All of those vaccinated (but not necessarily boosted) individuals — 1.8 million people total — will be eligible out of the gate to receive the updated shot, provided it's been at least two months since their most recent COVID shot. (The Pfizer booster has been approved for people 12 years and up; Moderna for those 18 years and older.)
The CDC will provide additional guidance to health care professionals regarding timing of the booster for people who have recently tested positive for COVID-19.
But in general, time is of the essence, Arwady said.
“I worry a lot of people may say, ‘I’m going to wait,’ and we’ll be in a surge or we’ll miss this window for good protection,” she said.
COVID fatigue is real, she acknowledged, but just because people are tired of the virus doesn’t mean the virus is going away.
Low uptake of the new vaccine could allow yet another variant to emerge, one that could be unlike anything seen to date, much in the way omicron stymied experts, Arwady said.
The updated vaccine is “truly the best protection out there,” she said. “It’s a beautiful match against the circulating strains.”
It’s also safe, Arwady emphasized.
Concerns that the updated booster was approved without undergoing proper clinical trials is not true, she said.
The vaccine, a “bivalent booster” that targets both omicron variants and the original strain, was thoroughly tested on humans in its initial formula. Regulators told the manufacturers to go back to the lab and tweak it for BA.4 and BA.5, Arwady explained.
Another reason to queue up for the new booster: It’s likely to be the last one provided for free to everyone, she said. Throughout the pandemic, the federal government has been picking up the tab for shots and testing for the insured and uninsured alike, but that funding well has run dry.
Going forward, COVID will be treated like any other disease, Arwady said, which will likely make it more difficult for the uninsured to access resources. She vowed that the city would continue to provide testing and offer vaccines to the uninsured for as long as possible.
This article has been updated following the advisory committee vote.
Contact Patty Wetli: @pattywetli | (773) 509-5623 | [email protected]