Pfizer booster shots approved for at-risk groups, but O.C. officials still on first-round push

Crowds enjoy the sun on Labor Day in Huntington Beach.
Certain Californians who received the Pfizer brand COVID-19 vaccine may now get a booster shot.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 booster shots are now recommended for residents over 65 and others with underlying health conditions and a high risk of exposure, but county health experts are still beating the drum for more first-round inoculations.

In a news conference Friday, Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, deputy health director for the Orange County Health Care Agency, said officials are doing all they can to reach vulnerable populations with education and vaccine clinics. Herd immunity, however, will be elusive as long as hesitancy remains.

“We still have a way to go, and we encourage those who have not yet started their vaccine series to get started if they’re eligible,” she said. “Our primary priority right now is to vaccinate all [who are] eligible.”

News comes as the agency on Friday reported 13 more deaths from COVID-19 and 356 new infections. In August, the county logged 136 fatalities, 94% of which were unvaccinated residents.

Of the eight fully vaccinated individuals who died last month, seven were older than 75, while one was a skilled nursing facility patient older than 65. Six were white and two were Asian, Chinsio-Kwong said.

Meanwhile, OCHA reports nearly 2.1 million county residents are fully vaccinated, reflecting roughly 65% of the total population. About 71% have received at least one dose of a two-dose regimen.

After the conclusion of a federal review period Friday — after the Western States Scientific Safety Review Workgroup confirmed earlier recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration — certain Californians who received the Pfizer brand COVID-19 vaccine may get a booster shot.

The recommendation is for residents older than 65, long-term care facility residents, those aged 55 to 64 with underlying medical conditions and people ages 18 to 64 with similar medical conditions or at risk of occupational exposure.

So far, no news about a similar booster shot for those who received Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccines has been released. Chinsio-Kwong advised residents to call ahead wherever they may receive a shot to verify their eligibility.

She also strongly encouraged residents to protect themselves for the impending flu season that promises to be worse than last year, when many people were at home during the winter coronavirus surge, by getting vaccinated against influenza. The dose can be co-administered with a COVID-19 vaccine or booster shot.

“The last thing we need to do is handle a respiratory illness that has very similar symptoms as COVID,” she said, adding that flu shots are usually offered from October to March.

Aside from Friday’s spike in COVID-19 fatalities, OCHA reported 308 individuals were being treated in hospitals for the virus, while 76 were in intensive care units. Orange County hospitals report approximately 22% of ICU beds are available, while about 93% of ICU patients are unvaccinated.

Among September’s deaths, Chinsio-Kwong confirmed only one individual had received a single dose of the two-dose Moderna vaccine regimen. The rest were unprotected.

“This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” she said.

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