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Covid-19 Booster Rollout Hits Bumps, With Central Pa. Health Systems Still Awaiting Vaccine

People in a hurry to get the new COVID-19 vaccine booster may have to wait another week if not a little longer.

The booster was approved Sept. 11, with shipments to healthcare providers expected to begin within a few days.

However, CVS and Rite Aid this week said they have received limited shipments, and advised customers to use online scheduling systems to find out if shots are available at a given location. Even with that, some central Pennsylvania residents were told this week their appointment had to be canceled.

As of Thursday, Penn State Health and UPMC hadn’t received any doses, with both saying they expect shipments within 1-2 weeks.

Beyond that, some people have arrived at appointments and have been told they must pay for the shot, which costs about $150, according to national reports.

Both manufacturers, Pfizer and Moderna, say they have plenty of doses.

The problems seem to have an assortment of causes, including delays on the part of distributors used by Pfizer and Moderna.

In cases of people being asked to pay for a dose, the problem seems to result from some health insurers not having updated their systems to cover the new booster.

And that touches on a major difference from previous COVID-19 vaccine rollouts: The national pandemic emergency ended in May. The federal government is no longer footing the full bill for COVID-19 vaccinations, with private insurers now expected to carry much of the load.

Katelyn Jetelina, an epidemiologist who publishes a newsletter devoted to public health, wrote this week the rollout problems are “due to a massive shift: vaccines are now commercialized … the government is no longer responsible for purchasing or distributing COVID-19 vaccines.”

The shift to reimbursement from private insurers also means pharmacies and medical practices may be more inclined to gauge demand rather than order large quantities of doses they might get stuck with.

Penn State Health said this week it “expects to have the new COVID booster – both Pfizer and Moderna – within the next two weeks and will offer them at many Penn State Health Medical Group locations.” UPMC said it expects to get doses next week and doesn’t expect the supply to be significantly limited.

Dr. John Goldman, a UPMC infectious disease specialist, said UPMC is still deciding which of its central Pennsylvania medical practices will distribute doses.

CVS spokesman Matt Blanchette said central Pennsylvania locations are receiving doses “on a rolling basis” while citing “supplier delivery delays.” He said customers can use the online scheduler at CVS.com to find out where doses are available.

Rite Aid responded to questions with a statement saying, “In many stores, supply for the new COVID-19 vaccine is improving.” It advised customers to check availability using the online scheduler at riteaid.com/pharmacy/scheduler.

Meanwhile, health insurers Capital Blue Cross and Highmark each said they have updated their systems and the booster will be covered for members who get a shot from a network provider.

The two major government programs that cover medical costs, Medicare and Medicaid, will pay for doses.

The federal government further said the Bridge Access Program will cover shots for the uninsured. Information about where to obtain a dose can be found here.

Beyond the rollout problems, a looming question is: do many Americans want the booster?

Nationally, only 17% of the U.S. population got the previous booster, called “bivalent” because it protected against the original COVID-19 strain as well as a subsequent variant. Uptake was highest among people 65 or older, with about 43% getting the booster, according to federal data.

Pennsylvania is above the national average with 20% of residents older than five — about 2.4 million people — having received the first booster.

Vermont has the highest proportion of residents older than five who have been boosted, 36%. But fewer than 10 other states have 25% or more of their populations boosted.

All told, 677 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been given in the United States, including 27.6 million in Pennsylvania, which has about 13 million people.

UPMC’s Goldman said “my sense is we are getting vaccine fatigue.” He added that, with the general threat from COVID-19 now commonly equated with that of the flu, he’s hearing people say they don’t feel a great need for updated protection.

All the while, COVID-19 hospitalizations have been rising since early summer — although they remain far lower than the worst surges of the past. As of Thursday, 31 patients had COVID-19 at UPMC’s seven central Pennsylvania hospitals, with six needing intensive care, according to Goldman. He said the present level of hospitalizations is “much lower than previous summer surges and much, much lower than previous winter surges.” At the worst point of the pandemic, about 300 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 at the seven UPMC hospitals, with many needing intensive care.

Like most doctors, Goldman attributes the comparatively mild impact to most people having some level of immunity from vaccination or COVID-19 infection.

Still, both forms of immunity begin to fade after a few months. At the same time, new variants threaten to overcome previous immunity. That’s why doctors say it’s beneficial to have the latest booster, which has been reformulated to protect against newer variants.

Goldman said he “strongly recommends” the new booster for people over 65 and those with chronic medical conditions, stressing they will be much less likely to need hospitalization or die if they come down with COVID-19.

He further stressed that everyone who gets the booster is at much lower risk of becoming severely ill, and also less likely to pass COVID-19 to an older person or someone who is at high risk.

Source : Penlive