CHICAGO — New booster shots that provide far greater protection against the most common variants of COVID-19 could be available in Chicago as soon as Tuesday, the city’s top doctor said.
The FDA has OK’d the latest shots — Pfizers and Moderna’s bivalent boosters — and now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just need to sign off on them, health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said at a Thursday briefing with reporters. That could mean the boosters start going into Chicagoans’ arms by Tuesday, she said.
Arwady urged all eligible Chicagoans to get the new boosters as soon as possible. They’ll be available for free to anyone 12 and older who completed their primary vaccination or got their last booster shot at least two months prior.
“This vaccine gives us a chance to try to get ahead of the virus,” Arwady said.
The bivalent booster shots will be key because they offer significant protection against the highly infectious Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants of COVID-19, which account for more than 99 percent of recent confirmed cases in Chicago, Arwady said.
That means people who get boosted will be best protected from death or serious illness from COVID-19 — which could, in turn, help prevent another surge of cases this fall and winter and avert more dangerous mutations of the virus, Arwady said.
“Getting this updated vaccine now in September and October will be the best thing to help keep that surge in control … in November and December,” Arwady said. “And if people think it’s better to wait for a surge and then get the vaccine, that is definitely not true based on everything we know now.”
People should get a booster as soon as possible once they become available, as they’ve been tailor-made to protect people against Omicron BA.4 and BA.5, Arwady said. If people wait, more mutations of the virus could pop up, and the booster might not be as effective against those, she said.
About 1.8 million Chicagoans will be immediately eligible for the bivalent boosters — but there shouldn’t be the same issues with getting an appointment as there was when COVID-19 vaccines first came out, Arwady said.
The federal government is expected to send 150,000 of the bivalent booster doses to Chicago in the first week, with more coming every week after, Arwady said.
“We are anticipating [having] enough vaccine,” though supply could “be a little stretched” the first few weeks, Arwady said.
The city has already been working on setting up providers and vaccinations events so as many people as possible can easily get the new booster, Arwady said.
People will be able to get vaccinated through pharmacies and health facilities, with more facilities doing the shots as more doses become available, Arwady said.
The city will provide the boosters directly to people in their homes through the Protect Chicago At Home program. The health department will also host large vaccination events at City Colleges, will set up aldermanic sites in every ward and will coordinate with Chicago Public Schools so the district can provide vaccinations, Arwady said.
The health department will prioritize getting doses to health care providers who serve people most at risk from COVID-19, Arwady said. But the booster rollout likely won’t feature phases like the initial vaccine rollout, Arwady said, meaning anyone who is eligible to get a shot will be able to get one once they become available.
The city will keep a special focus on getting Black and Latino Chicagoans boosted, as those communities have seen a disproportionate number of people seriously sickened or killed by COVID-19, Arwady said.
But officials do anticipate “some disparities” among racial and ethnic groups in the booster rollout, as initial vaccinations and booster shots lagged among Black and Latino Chicagoans, Arwady said. The health department is using the lessons its staff members have learned from the past few years to try to connect with those communities.
“We’ve been working hard to try to build trusted messengers and voices,” Arwady said.
Arwady said she has “no safety concerns” about the new booster shots.
Instead, Arwady’s only worried about what could happen if people don’t get them as soon as possible.
“The thing I’m worried about is not if a surge comes with Omicron — but if we don’t get a lot of uptake of this updated vaccine, we continue to see a lot of mutation [in the virus] and we have a variant emerge that is really different from anything we’ve seen previously,” Arwady said.
That’s what happened last year, Arwady said: The Delta surge in the fall was followed by the highly contagious Omicron variant developing. Omicron was different than past versions of the virus, and it drove confirmed cases to record levels in December and January — though the numbers of people hospitalized with and dying from the virus remained lower, with officials saying that was due to people being protected by vaccines.
COVID booster shots could become like flu shots, where people get a new version every fall to protect against the most dominant versions of the virus going around, Arwady said.
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