By Jenna Portnoy and Ovetta Wiggins,
Marvin Joseph The Washington Post
Officials in the greater Washington region say the rollout of booster shots to millions of vaccinated people will be much different from the early days of the coronavirus vaccinations, when doses were in short supply and people scoured the Internet for scarce appointments.
Third doses are already being given out to those who are immunocompromised, and President Biden has said the general population will be eligible for booster shots starting next month.
Health departments say this time there will be plenty of doses available, and although large-scale vaccination sites may not reopen, pharmacies and thousands of doctor’s offices are now equipped to administer the shots — unlike earlier this year, when only government agencies were administering most of the doses.
The Virginia Department of Health said the state has about a million shots on hand and will work with local health departments in the coming weeks to determine whether they need contract workers or other help to meet the anticipated demand.
“The federal government has very much reassured us that supply is not an issue,” Danny Avula, Virginia’s vaccine coordinator, said Thursday. “There is enough vaccine for a third dose for every American. This will be a very different scenario than what we were working with from December to March.”
Federal officials on Wednesday said people who received the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna shots would be eligible for booster shots eight months after their second dose, meaning the boosters could be given out as soon as Sept. 20, pending Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations. (The guidance does not yet include those who received the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.)
Public health experts have said for months that booster shots would likely be necessary to strengthen waning immunity against the coronavirus and especially to combat the highly contagious delta variant, which studies show vaccinated people can contract and spread.
The announcement triggered a frenzy of planning by local health departments, which have already built up a robust infrastructure for administering vaccinations. Despite a drop-off in vaccinations since May, the rise of the delta variant and vaccination requirements by employers in private and public sectors have driven a slight uptick in recent weeks.
In Maryland, 56 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, compared with 55 percent in Virginia, state data show. D.C. reports that 56 percent of its residents are fully vaccinated.
Maryland recently joined Virginia and D.C. in having high community transmission of the virus, meaning a weekly average of more than 100 cases per 100,000 people, according to the CDC. Although the region is not experiencing a surge as dire as Florida or Mississippi, infections are on the rise.
Virginia has a weekly average of 184 cases per 100,000; the number is 108 in Maryland and 166 in the District, CDC data show.
Health officials on Thursday announced the deaths of two more children age 9 or under who died of covid-19, bringing the total number of deaths of children this age from the virus to 10. One of the children was from the Richmond area, while the other was from the Chesterfield area.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) on Wednesday said the state does not plan to reopen mass vaccination sites to distribute booster shots because pharmacies, doctor’s offices and local health departments now all offer vaccinations.
“This is going to be an ongoing response, like we do every year where we have to do flu shots. People who want these are going to be able to get these,” he said. “I don’t think we need the same kind of volume during that compressed time when we built the sites.”
Hogan said the state has “an abundance of supply” to accommodate boosters.
D.C. Health is still formulating a plan for boosters and will share more information when plans are finalized, spokeswoman Kimberly Henderson said.
The Virginia Department of Health and Montgomery County, Md., health department will send alerts to vaccinated people when they become eligible for booster shots, but experts advised residents to also review their vaccination records to know when to get another dose.
“Everyone stands poised and ready,” Mary Anderson, a spokeswoman for Montgomery’s health department, said in an interview Wednesday. “We’ve never gone away. We’ve never stopped giving vaccinations. We can ramp up as the need dictates. But with so much vaccine availability in the community . . . it will be a group effort to get everyone their third dose.”
Gloria Addo-Ayensu, director of health for Fairfax County, also said residents will have multiple avenues to access boosters in the state’s most populous county.
Prince George’s County officials plan to lay out their plan for distributing booster shots in coming weeks, spokesman George Lettis said in a statement. Residents will not have to return to the same place where they received their first and second doses, he said.
Booster shots are not to be confused with third shots for immunocompromised individuals, such as those who are undergoing cancer treatment or have received an organ transplant, who are eligible as soon as 28 days after their second shot, according to a recommendation the CDC issued last week.
Avula anticipates peak demand for booster shots in the state will occur the week of Dec. 26, when 320,000 Virginians will become eligible, but he noted the state has administered more than 500,000 shots in a given week and can accommodate the demand.
Although vaccinated people can get a booster eight months after their second shot, Avula said protection won’t drop off overnight and waiting another few weeks will not leave a person entirely unprotected.
“The sense of urgency or emergency is very different than what we experienced when people had no protection from coronavirus,” he said. “When their turn comes up, they really can approach that in a more relaxed way and identify providers in their community where they can get that dose.”
Despite the focus on boosters, Avula said getting people to take the first dose is much more important to curtailing the pandemic, especially with the delta variant pushing cases up. Data indicates people hospitalized with and dying of covid-19 are overwhelmingly unvaccinated.
“It’s going to become more and more clear to people that this works,” he said.
Julie Zauzmer Weil contributed to this report.