Updated booster shots targeting the omicron variant of COVID-19 arrived in Chattanooga on Friday, providing vaccinated residents a new tool to bolster protection against the most common strains of the coronavirus currently circulating before a potential winter surge.
Phillip Smith, a pharmacist at Access Family Pharmacy in Hixson, said the first shipment of Moderna's new booster arrived Friday morning, and staff members are anticipating Pfizer's version of the shot will be on the ground in the coming days.
Several people had already received their updated booster at Access by noon, Smith said.
"Once people kind of figure out that they are available, I think there's going to be a pretty good demand," he said via phone, noting that customers have been asking when an updated shot would be available for some time.
Like previous versions of the COVID-19 vaccine, the booster shots are provided at no cost to the public.
In the coming days, updated boosters will be available at many of the same locations as the original COVID-19 vaccines. A spokesperson for the Hamilton County Health Department said the department plans to offer the new booster vaccine in the future.
"We will issue a press release notifying the community and alert the public via social media as soon as we begin administering the booster dose," the spokesperson said via email.
The new boosters by Pfizer and Moderna -- the two vaccine brands most widely used in the United States -- are "bivalent" shots, meaning they contain half the original COVID-19 vaccine and half an updated formula that's been tweaked for omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5. Those two strains are now responsible for over 99% of new COVID-19 cases in the U.S., according to the latest CDC data.
Unlike earlier versions of the coronavirus, BA.4 and BA.5 appear to be less deadly as a whole but far better at evading immunity from previous infection and vaccination, which is why experts say updated shots are needed.
People must be 18 or older to get Moderna's new booster, and Pfizer's new booster is available for ages 12 and up.
The new boosters are authorized only for individuals who have received the two-shot primary series of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or the Novavax vaccines or the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Whether a person has already received one or more booster shots or not doesn't matter, but a two-month window is needed between the last time a person received a COVID vaccine and getting a booster, which means some people who want the updated shot will have to wait.
"We were still doing a bunch of the regular boosters up until Thursday, and then they came out and said that you have to separate this new booster by two months from your last shot, which I think is going to irritate some people," Smith said.
The single-dose bivalent booster replaces the previous boosters that contained only the original COVID-19 vaccine formula from 2020, which was more than 90% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 before viral mutations rendered them less effective.
Still, since BA.4 and BA.5 became dominant, the original vaccines continued to protect against the most serious infections, with Tenneseans who had not received either two doses of Pfizer/Moderna or one dose of J&J accounting for roughly three times as many COVID-19 deaths in the state since July, according to a report from the Tennessee Department of Health.
At least 34 Hamilton County residents have died due to COVID-19 in the past two months, and both cases and hospitalizations remain well above the low levels last seen in spring, with 61 COVID-19 patients in local hospitals as of Friday.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 57.6% of Hamilton County residents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Among those who are, 50.1% have received at least one booster.
That compares to a 67.5% full vaccination rate for the U.S. population as a whole, according to the CDC. Of those who are fully vaccinated, 48.5% have had at least one booster shot.