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COVID vaccine boosters may be necessary soon

WHEELING — Studies are underway to determine if a booster shot for the COVID-19 vaccine will be needed to combat variant strains of the virus, and a local health official says it seems likely that one could be needed as soon as the fall.

On Monday, Wheeling-Ohio County Health Administrator Howard Gamble said the department had been advised several months ago by the state and Centers for Disease Control that a review was in progress to determine if a booster would be necessary. Gamble said the problem was the length of time required to determine if a booster is needed, compounded by the possibility that variant strains of COVID will warrant an additional dose.

Gamble said he was of the opinion that a booster would likely be required, in order to protect against variant strains, if nothing else.

“What we see right now is that things are pretty steady, (protection) being in the upper 90% for both Moderna and Pfizer (vaccines),” Gamble said. “If variants are introduced, you could say we need a booster because of the variant strains. It gives more protection, and the population would be better off, as far as responding to additional outbreaks.”

Gamble said that vaccines, such as those against measles, mumps and rubella, can and have existed for years before a booster is required; in the MMR vaccine’s case, it was more than 20 years until measles began reoccurring in the 1990s.

“It may take a while. We were anticipating notification relatively soon, if we would need booster shots, so that we could prepare mass clinics,” Gamble said. “It’s our understanding that the studies are still ongoing. …

“This is a little different (from MMR). We’re responding to a pandemic, so at this point, it’s about how we can put together a booster vaccine program relatively quickly, if necessary,” he said.

“In my opinion, it will be necessary for a booster vaccine, and it could be as early as this fall, or much later, depending on how well the virus in the vaccine we received is responding to it. Right now, things look very well. But with the introductions of the Delta, UK, Brazil (variants of COVID), it may come down to a decision to do the booster based upon the variant strains.”

Gamble said he felt the variant strains are likely going to be the impetus to start a booster program. He said that while it has been a few days since Ohio County had reported a new case of COVID — the website reported seven days between two individual cases on June 10 and June 17, and another positive reported Monday morning. However, Gamble said additional COVID variants were recently identified in previously positive individuals.

“It seems like it’s picking up more and more that we’re identifying, especially the UK variant,” Gamble said. “I think it will result in us saying we’ll need to do a booster campaign.”

He added that the infrastructure is already in place for local health agencies to roll out mass vaccination clinics if the need arises. However, numerous questions still stand between a smooth rollout, such as whether or not a booster manufactured by one company can be safely administered to someone whose first vaccine was from another and concerns with age.

“It’s not just, ‘We need it and therefore we’re going to do it.’ Just like the original rollout, there are lots of little issues that make running a mass vaccination a little challenging,” he said. “We have a lot of questions. Can we use any vaccine? What’s the age? What’s the dosage? What is the spacing?”

The spacing concern, Gamble said, involved needing to use the national vaccine database to identify how long it’s been since a client got their initial vaccine, which some sources, such as certain pharmacies, did not contribute to, further complicated by some people losing their vaccine card.

“There’s a lot of cards out there, individuals call us asking to replace them when they get lost,” he said. “We have the national database, but not all participating vaccine programs dumped into the database. It’s going to be more of, ‘Can you remember when you got it? Greater than three months? You can get it.’

“Rolling out a booster campaign is not easy; we did it most recently in the ’90s. We were responding to a lot of outbreaks of measles, and the CDC said the recommendation was to do a booster. At that point, because there was a requirement for schools, it had to be fit into the required back-to-school vaccinations. When you look at this, it’s going to be more of a challenge. It’s not part of back-to-school, but a lot of people got this vaccine. In order to be protected, you need to administer a lot of vaccines.”

Additionally, when the boosters roll out, health care providers will need to account for the people coming to get their first doses of vaccines, and integrate them into the booster shot schedule as well.

On the bright side, Gamble said, booster vaccines should be made available at most common locations throughout the county, such as pharmacies, Health Right, and other locations where the vaccine can currently be obtained, rather than being limited to a county effort.

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