Updated COVID vaccine approved by FDA. We break down the basics

Doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine and vaccination record cards await patients at UW Medical Center - Roosevelt on June 21, 2022, in Seattle. (David Ryder/Getty Images/TNS)

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Credit: TNS

Doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine and vaccination record cards await patients at UW Medical Center - Roosevelt on June 21, 2022, in Seattle. (David Ryder/Getty Images/TNS)

An updated vaccine for COVID-19 was cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Monday, setting the stage for the shots to be shipped to doctors and pharmacies as soon as later this week.

The Centers for Disease Control are expected to issue their own recommendations of who should get the shots and how they should be used. The CDC’s vaccine advisory panel will meet on Tuesday. The final nod needed will come from CDC Director Dr. Mandy Cohen, who could sign off on the new vaccine shortly after the meeting.

The new vaccine comes as the number of people hospitalized with the virus have been on the rise. The number of people hospitalized in Georgia began rising July 1 and has continued a steady climb each week. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for the week ending Aug. 26, there were 772 new hospitalizations in the state, up 24% from the prior week. Nationally, COVID hospital admissions for the same period were up 16% to 17,418.

They are still far below numbers seen during earlier waves of the pandemic. The number of deaths remains low and experts don’t expect a surge like those earlier in the pandemic that upended every aspect of our daily lives and overwhelmed hospitals.

The latest estimates are that at least 96% of adults in the U.S. have either been infected by COVID, providing natural immunity, or have been vaccinated. Many fall into both categories. But immunity diminishes over time and COVID remains a threat, especially for those who are older and people of all ages who have serious health problems such as lung conditions, weakened immune systems, or diabetes. Immunity also wanes over time. And anyone infected can suffer from long COVID, with sometimes debilitating symptoms that linger for weeks, months, or even longer.

Empty vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. (Elizabeth Robertson/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

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When will the new COVID vaccine be available in Georgia?

Just how long it will take to start arriving in doctors’ offices, pharmacies, and health departments is unclear. A spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Public Health said they won’t know the exact timetable for the vaccine being available at local health departments until the updated vaccine gets final approval from the CDC, which could come Tuesday.

With this newest vaccine formula, a new national strategy for distributing the shots will begin. The federal government had been purchasing billions of dollars worth of vaccines, guaranteeing a market for manufacturers, and giving them away for free. Now, however, the U.S. has transitioned the federal vaccination program to the private market. This means the two main COVID vaccine producers, Pfizer and Moderna, will sell the shots directly to health care providers at what’s expected to be a higher price. It’s unclear how many vaccines local pharmacies and providers will buy, particularly in areas with low demand.

How much will the new COVID vaccine cost?

It depends on your insurance coverage. It will continue to be completely free for many people but not everyone. Some insurers may now charge a copay.

People became accustomed to that no-cost availability during the pandemic, but the federal government stopped picking up the entire tab with the end of the public health emergency this spring.

Now the actual cost of the vaccine will be borne by private insurers and Medicare and Medicaid. Pfizer and Moderna have decided to charge up to $130 a shot, compared with $30 last year for the booster. Pfizer spokesperson Amy Rose said the price was “consistent with the value delivered” and reflected higher expenses to provide the shots commercially.

For people without insurance, the Biden administration set up the Bridge Access Program, which will make free vaccines available this fall through community health centers and state health departments. Eventually, retail pharmacies may also participate. But the details of the program are still being worked out and vaccines may not be readily available for free for those who are uninsured at pharmacies.

Mandy K. Cohen, Director of the CDC, answers questions from science and health writer of CNN, Brenda Goodman, during The Atlanta Press Club 2023 Leadership Newsmaker Series at the Commerce Club on Wednesday, Sep. 6, 2023, in Atlanta.
Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

How will the new COVID shot work?

The updated COVID vaccine targets the XBB.1.5 variant of omicron. It is no longer the dominant strain, but new research shows the new formula should also protect against other circulating strains.

Concerns that a brand-new and highly mutated version of the virus might not be covered by the vaccine were somewhat quieted last week. Vaccine manufacturer Moderna reported its clinical trials have confirmed its updated vaccine will generate a strong immune response against variant BA.2.86, a variant being watched closely by global health authorities and the CDC.

Early in the pandemic, there were great hopes of COVID vaccines preventing and stopping all COVID infections. Public health experts say that is no longer realistic. But Dr. Cameron Wolfe, a Duke Health infectious disease specialist said similar to flu vaccines, COVID vaccines can lower the seriousness of a COVID infection.

“This is the hammer-home point to make. Even if you happen to get flu, or COVID, if I can turn what would have been a hospitalizing-requiring severity of illness … into something you can manage at home, that is absolutely a success,” said Wolfe in a recent media briefing.

How will I be sure I get the new, updated vaccine and not the older one?

A spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Public Health said once the updated COVID vaccines become available, providers will no longer administer the older vaccine, which was developed last year. According to the FDA’s announcement, the older vaccines are no longer authorized for use in the U.S.

Who should get the new COVID vaccine?

While the FDA ruled on Monday that the vaccine is safe for all ages down to 6 months, it remains to be seen who the CDC will recommend should receive the updated vaccine. A decision is expected following a Tuesday meeting of CDC’s vaccine advisory committee. Public health experts say it’s especially important for people 65 and older, immunocompromised, and other high-risk people.

Dr. Carlos del Rio, the interim dean of the Emory University School of Medicine and professor of medicine, epidemiology, and global health emphasizes this point. “I think the people who really, really need to receive it are the people who are over the age of 65,” he said.

He said only 16% of the U.S. population got the most recent booster and about 45% of people over 65. He also noted most people who are dying of COVID are over the age of 85.

How to find the COVID vaccine in Georgia:

To find COVID-19 vaccine locations near you, search vaccines.gov or text your ZIP code to 438829, or call 1-800-232-0233.

You can ask your doctor, pharmacist, or community health center about their vaccine availability. Many pharmacies offer vaccines to those who walk in without making an appointment ahead of time.

Is it okay to get the COVID and flu vaccine at the same time?

Yes. The CDC says it is safe to get both at the same time. The influenza vaccine is designed to last through the season, but its effectiveness can wane. For that reason, many experts suggest waiting until September or October. So the timing to getting both is good.

What if someone recently had COVID?

For those who recently had COVID, the CDC recommends delaying your vaccine by three months from when your symptoms started or a positive test. Natural antibodies are already elevated from the infection, so a vaccine won’t provide as much additional benefit now.

KFF Health News contributed to this article

What You Need to Know

  • Individuals 5 years of age and older regardless of previous vaccination are eligible to receive a single dose of an updated mRNA COVID-19 vaccine at least 2 months since the last dose of any COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Individuals 6 months through 4 years of age who have previously been vaccinated against COVID-19 are eligible to receive one or two doses of an updated mRNA COVID-19 vaccine (timing and number of doses to administer depends on the previous COVID-19 vaccine received).
  • Unvaccinated individuals 6 months through 4 years of age are eligible to receive three doses of the updated authorized Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine or two doses of the updated authorized Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine.