Chicago public health officials are once again preparing for a massive vaccine rollout. Nearly 1.8 million Chicagoans could soon be eligible for updated COVID-19 shots now that the Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday authorized a modified booster.
“We’ve been planning and preparing for that,” Dr. Allison Arwady said a day earlier. “Rest assured, we are ready to go and excited.”
The redesigned formula, meant to address the highly contagious BA.4 and BA.5 omicron subvariants, now just needs to be greenlit by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which will meet Thursday.
Arwady, Chicago’s top public health official, praised the timing and hopes to get people the added protection before cooler weather arrives, which has typically led to a spike in cases as residents move indoors and have closer contact.
“[The booster] should help us really be in a good spot heading into the fall and winter,” Arwady said.
When omicron initially emerged late last year, Chicago reached more than 10,000 cases in a single day for the first time since the pandemic began. In the spring, the strain’s subvariants were responsible for smaller increases in case counts. The city is currently reporting about 500 new COVID cases per day, although the true number is unknown given the prominence of at-home tests.
The influential CDC advisory panel will make recommendations on who should get the additional shot — including whether people at high risk for COVID should go first. Depending on what the CDC decides, Arwady said “we could be getting the first doses possibly as soon as next Tuesday.”
She added that the city will make use of its mass vaccination sites at city colleges, which have recently been more focused on monkeypox vaccines, to meet demand for the new booster.
Until now, COVID-19 vaccines have targeted the original coronavirus strain. The updated vaccine is a “bivalent” shot, which means it provides both a boost of protection against the original strain — the way other booster shots have done — but also provides protection against the BA.4 and BA.5 omicron subvariants, which are the dominant strains in Chicago and across the U.S. right now.
“They’re going to be the same Pfizer and Moderna vaccines with additional coding,” Dr. Mia Taormina, an infectious disease expert with Duly Health and Care in Chicago, told WBEZ’s Reset earlier this week. “And that reformulated code will go ahead and protect against the circulating variants.”
The Pfizer-BioNTech booster will be available for people 12 years and up, while the Moderna booster will be only for adults 18 and older.
In order to receive the new booster, individuals need to have completed an initial vaccine series — meaning two shots of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or one shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
People should wait two months after getting the initial vaccines or another booster before receiving the updated shot, according to the FDA, but receiving a previous booster isn’t mandatory in order to get the updated shot.
“The best thing to do for you, if you haven’t had that third dose yet, is to go ahead and wait for a week or two to hopefully get the rollout of the new booster doses of vaccine,” Taormina said.
For those with “vaccine fatigue,” Taormina said she doesn’t anticipate we will be back lining up to get another shot three to four months down the line.
“I think that we should get six to 12 months out of this booster if all goes well,” Taormina said. “The hope would be that this newer, improved booster dose will continue to give some efficacy against further variations of omicron that haven’t been seen yet and we might have more durability in this booster.”
Health care officials also hope the new formula will cut down on breakthrough cases, but it’s unknown right now just how effective it will be.
“We definitely don’t want to view this vaccine as a silver bullet that allows us to just be haphazard with other mitigations, especially as we move into the fall,” Taormina said. “This is an extra layer of protection, but it’s no guarantee that we’re not going to have breakthrough cases and time will tell exactly how many people will have breakthrough cases.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Courtney Kueppers is a digital producer/reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @cmkueppers.