Georgia charts out who can receive coronavirus booster shots

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Georgia officials said Thursday that the state will follow new federal guidance on coronavirus booster vaccinations for high-risk people amid mixed messages about who can receive an extra shot.

Gov. Brian Kemp and Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state’s top health official, held a press conference to emphasize new federal rules that allow millions of Americans to get Pfizer booster shots if they’ve received a second dose six months earlier and meet eligibility requirements.

The rules let people over 65 or those who live in long-term care facilities receive the boosters, along with younger adults with underlying medical conditions or jobs that put them at higher risk to contract the disease.

Only those who have received the Pfizer vaccines are now eligible for a third dose, though regulators could soon clear the way for boosters for recipients of the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

“This isn’t an emergency,” Toomey said, adding: “You don’t need to run, but walk to get your booster.”

ExploreWho should get the coronavirus booster shot

State health officials began administering the Pfizer boosters this week at health department vaccination sites and report an “adequate inventory” of the shots to be distributed statewide.

Kemp also said the state’s stock of monoclonal antibodies — used to treat COVID-19 during the early onset of symptoms — has recently become more limited, though there’s still no supply issue.

“We have plenty now and we’re distributing them around the state,” Toomey said. “And when I checked this morning, we have overages in some hospitals.”

At least some health departments, including the DeKalb County Board of Health, will be accepting walk-ups. Eric Nickens, a spokesperson for the DeKalb board, said if a person shows up without a vaccine card, health care workers will check the GRITS (state registry) to verify he or she received a Pfizer vaccine and will check the date of completion of the initial series to make sure it has been at least six months from the second dose.

Pharmacies also indicated supply is not a problem. A spokesperson for CVS pharmacy said it has an ample supply of the Pfizer vaccine to meet the demand for boosters. When scheduling an appointment on CVS.com, patients will be asked to provide the name of the manufacturer of their vaccine and the date of their last COVID-19 vaccine to make sure they are eligible for the booster shot.

No proof of eligibility is required. The rollout of COVID-19 booster shots will rely on the honor system.

The debate over who should receive an extra dose of the coronavirus vaccine has sharply divided the scientific community. The World Health Organization has called for a halt of booster shot initiatives so that nations struggling to inoculate their populations with a first dose can stock up.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Experts say vaccination prevents severe illness and hospitalization in the vast majority of people exposed to the coronavirus. But some independent studies suggest that the boosters are only necessary for older Americans or people with compromised immune systems, and the data is limited on how effective they are.

The Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says studies show that after getting vaccinated against COVID-19, protection against the virus may decrease over time and be less able to protect against the delta variant. In particular, emerging evidence based on studies of health care workers and other frontline employees, who are at increased risk of coronavirus exposure, showed vaccine effectiveness declined over time. This lower effectiveness is likely due to the combination of waning immunity as time passes and the high levels of infectiousness of the delta variant, according to the CDC.

Just 47% of Georgians are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, including 53% of those over age 12. The contagious delta variant combined with the low rate of inoculations fueled a surge of new cases that’s beginning to taper off. The hospitalization rate has dropped by one-third in the past seven days, Kemp said, while the number of new coronavirus cases has fallen by 16%.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

“Do not wait until the next wave of the coronavirus to get vaccinated,” Kemp said, adding that health officials “can only assume a winter increase” in the number of cases.

Some experts worry the possibility of a severe flu season combined with ongoing coronavirus outbreaks could create a “twindemic,” further straining a hospital system already stretched thin. Kemp has refused to impose vaccine requirements or mask mandates, though he’s long encouraged Georgians to roll up their sleeves and get the shots.

Dr. Cecil Bennett, a Newnan-based family physician, said he worries too much attention is being focused on boosters at a time when so many people are still unvaccinated.

“You know the most vulnerable group right now? The unvaccinated. And that is where we should spend 99% of our attention, getting them vaccinated,” Bennett said. “We are hearing about children in the ICU and unvaccinated younger people in the hospital. You know who we are not hearing as much about going to the hospital? Seniors, seniors who have been vaccinated. We cannot take our eye off the ball.”

Toomey agreed that getting people vaccinated against COVID-19 must remain the top priority.

“The most important message of all, the single most important thing we can do as a state, is to get additional people vaccinated for the first time,” she said. “Our numbers of total vaccinated individuals are still too low, and most experts believe that our rates are not sufficient to combat any possible future surges that may come our way. So when you go to get your booster, take a friend, take a family member, take a neighbor who you know was a little hesitant about getting the vaccine. Have that friend and have your mother-in-law go with you who wasn’t vaccinated. I think it’s going to be these small acts of kindness and community engagement, working together, that will allow us to end this pandemic.”

Staff writer Ariel Hart contributed to this article.


Who can get a booster shot?

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the following categories of people who completed the two-dose Pfizer vaccine series at least six months ago are eligible for a booster shot:

  • People 65 years and older
  • People 18 and over with underlying medical conditions
  • If you work or live in a situation that puts you at high risk for severe COVID-19. For example, health care workers, teachers, and people in prisons and homeless shelters.

What constitutes an underlying medical condition?

  • Cancer
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Chronic lung diseases, including COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), asthma (moderate to severe), interstitial lung disease, cystic fibrosis and pulmonary hypertension
  • Dementia or other neurological conditions
  • Diabetes (type 1 or type 2)
  • Down syndrome
  • Heart conditions (such as heart failure, coronary artery disease, cardiomyopathy or high blood pressure )
  • HIV infection
  • Immunocompromised state (weakened immune system)
  • Liver disease
  • Overweight (BMI greater than 25 and under 30) and obesity (BMI of 30 and above).
  • Pregnancy
  • Sickle cell disease or thalassemia
  • Smoking, current or former
  • Solid-organ or blood stem-cell transplant
  • Stroke or cerebrovascular disease, which affects blood flow to the brain
  • Substance use disorders

Note: The list above does not include all potential medical conditions that could make you more likely to get severely ill. Rare medical conditions may not be included. However, a person with a condition that is not listed may still be in more danger from COVID-19 than people of similar age who do not have the condition, and the CDC recommends they should talk with their health care provider about possibly getting a booster.

Who should get the booster dose?

The CDC is only saying the following should get a booster: anyone 65 and over; anyone 50 to 64 with an underlying medical condition; and any resident 18 and older in a long-term care facility.

People 18 to 49 with a medical condition and those 18 to 64 at increased risk of “occupational or institutional setting” can get the booster dose, but the CDC says they should consider whether the benefits outweigh the risks. The reason for this is that these younger groups are usually so well protected already by the first two shots that a booster shot might be wasted on them.