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California to offer COVID booster shots for teachers, healthcare workers, seniors

A nurse prepares a COVID-19 vaccine
A nurse prepares a syringe with a COVID-19 vaccine in the library of Arlington High School in Riverside.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

A coalition of public health experts from California and other Western states has endorsed offering COVID-19 vaccine boosters to older and high-risk residents, marking a significant new step in the effort to armor the population against the still-potent pandemic.

The completion of the review by the Western States Scientific Safety Review Workgroup — which also includes representatives from Nevada, Oregon and Washington — clears the way for California to follow federal recommendations that certain residents can receive a third dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at least six months after their initial inoculation series.

“With today’s Western States Scientific Safety Review Workgroup recommendation, California is ready to go on day one to begin administering Pfizer-BioNTech boosters to eligible Californians, in addition to our continued work in reaching those who remain unvaccinated to protect communities,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement early Friday afternoon. “Vaccines save lives, and boosters are a critical next step toward better protecting Californians from COVID-19.”

One day after the FDA authorized offering booster shots of Pfizer’s COVID vaccine, California unveils a plan to ramp up inoculation rates.

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Under the established criteria — announced late Thursday night by the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky — a third Pfizer-BioNTech dose should be given to those 65 and older, residents in long-term care settings, and those age 50 to 64 with underlying medical conditions.

The CDC also said younger adults with underlying medical conditions may get a booster, as well as adults age 18 to 64 at increased risk for coronavirus exposure because of occupational or institutional settings.

Decisions on whether to administer additional shots to those who got the Moderna or single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccines will be made at a later date.

Some jurisdictions, including Los Angeles County, began administering boosters early Friday.

“Starting today, eligible Los Angeles County residents can begin receiving their booster dose at any of the hundreds of sites offering the Pfizer vaccine,” public health director Barbara Ferrer said in a morning statement. “The booster dose offers enhanced protection for those fully vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine six months ago who are at increased risk of getting COVID-19 and/or experiencing severe illness from COVID. The L.A. County vaccination network is prepared to offer boosters today while continuing to prioritize getting first doses to those eligible and not yet vaccinated.”

County officials said residents interested in getting a booster would need to show proof they previously received both required Pfizer-BioNTech doses — such as their physical vaccination card, a photo of it or a digital record.

“At many sites, residents may be asked to sign an attestation form indicating they meet the criteria to receive the booster,” officials added in a statement.

Boosters will be available starting Friday at nearly 600 CVS Pharmacy and MinuteClinic locations across California, the company announced.

Interested and eligible individuals are asked to schedule an appointment at CVS.com or MinuteClinic.com.

Earlier Friday morning, the Orange County Health Care Agency said it “will begin offering booster shots once we receive recommendations” from relevant groups.

However, Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, a county deputy health officer, noted during a briefing that the top priority remains expanding vaccination coverage.

“First and foremost, our primary priority right now is to vaccinate all eligible with their initial primary COVID series,” she said Friday.

President Biden spoke from the White House the morning after federal regulators endorsed COVID-19 booster shots for many Americans.

State officials have said they plan to move quickly to administer boosters to eligible Californians.

In a new COVID-19 Vaccine Action Plan released Thursday, state officials estimated there are about 6.6 million seniors who eventually could be eligible for a booster dose. During a briefing Thursday, California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said many in this group were recipients of a Pfizer-BioNTech shot.

Up to 250,000 younger residents also may qualify because they’re at higher risk of severe COVID-19 disease, he added.

“We are working hard to make sure not only are we prepared to provide it, but those who are eligible know that they’re eligible and know when the time is right,” he said during a briefing.

The booster criteria was uncertain up until the 11th hour.

A CDC panel initially rejected a proposal to extend the additional shots to people at risk because of their jobs, such as teachers, healthcare and grocery store employees. However, Walensky later opted to approve boosters for such workers.

“As CDC director, it’s my job to recognize where our actions can have the greatest impact,” she said during a briefing Friday. “In a pandemic, we most often take steps with the intention to do the greatest good, even in an uncertain environment. And that is what I’m doing with these recommendations.”

“Many of our frontline workers, essential workers and those in congregate settings,” she continued later, “come from communities that have already been hardest-hit. Withholding access for boosters from these people and communities would only worsen the inequities that I have committed to fight against.”

State health officials said the decrease in the average age of those dying from COVID-19 is likely related to lower vaccination rates among younger adults.

The occupational criteria seems likely to dramatically deepen the pool of Californians eligible for a booster shot.

However, it’s uncertain how many people will jump at the opportunity for another dose. Officials have already observed less intense demand than expected for third doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for certain immunocompromised people, which began to be distributed in mid-August.

California officials estimate that about 259,000 third doses for the immunocompromised have been administered since then. That’s only about one-third of the state’s population of people with moderately to severely compromised immune systems.

Even as officials ramp up their focus on boosters, they emphasize that the best way to combat the pandemic is to get more unvaccinated people off the fence.

In California, roughly 66% of residents have already gotten at least one vaccine dose, and nearly 60% are considered fully vaccinated, according to data compiled by the Times. However, that still leaves millions of people who have yet to begin their inoculation regimen — including all children under 12, who are not yet eligible.

According to Ghaly, unvaccinated Californians are eight times more likely to be infected with the coronavirus, 13 times more likely to be hospitalized and 15 times more likely to die from the disease than their vaccinated counterparts.

“I want to be clear: We will not boost our way out of this pandemic,” Walensky said. “Infections among the unvaccinated continue to fuel this pandemic, resulting in a rising number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths where people are unvaccinated. The most vulnerable are those unvaccinated.”

Times staff writer Chris Megerian contributed to this report.


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