Connecticut ready to deliver COVID booster shots - pending federal approval

Joanne Kombert, R.N., adminsters the second shot of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine during a Hartford HealthCare and St. Vincent's Medical Center vaccination clinic for parishioners of St. Charles Borromeo Church at McGivney Community Center in Bridgeport, Conn., on Tuesday April 20, 2021.

Joanne Kombert, R.N., adminsters the second shot of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine during a Hartford HealthCare and St. Vincent's Medical Center vaccination clinic for parishioners of St. Charles Borromeo Church at McGivney Community Center in Bridgeport, Conn., on Tuesday April 20, 2021.

Christian Abraham / Hearst Connecticut Media

As Connecticut continues to be one of the most vaccinated states in the country, focus has begun to shift to the looming next wave of inoculation efforts: Giving boosters to those who have already finished their initial course of vaccine.

While health officials believe the boosters will play an important role in sustained immunity, the future remains uncertain. President Joe Biden, along with top federal health officials, had set a potential start date for Sept. 20, eight months after the first doses began going into the arms of health care workers. With that date fast approaching, crucial approvals still hang in the balance.

Despite no official word from regulators, the state and its providers continue to prepare for the next massive round of vaccines.

“The Connecticut Department of Public Health is actively working with our federal partners, vaccine providers, and other stakeholders to be sure that Connecticut is ready to provide boosters when they are recommended,” said Christopher Boyle, a department spokesperson.

In a recent DPH communication, vaccine providers were told there may be some movement on approvals this week.

DPH highlighted that the Food and Drug Administration's Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee will meet on Friday to discuss data on boosters. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices will meet to discuss the same information and could make a recommendation on boosters.

While these regulators are reviewing boosters for mRNA, which include Pfizer and Moderna, there has been little news about the future of boosters for Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, which is far less widely used in Connecticut.

“We know that (vaccine) providers are actively planning for booster dose administration once recommended. We still do not know exactly what the booster dose recommendation will be, but will continue to provide updates as we learn more,” DPH said in the memo last week.

Discussion about the booster come as COVID-19 metrics have started to retreat slightly from recent highs. Through the weekend, the positivity rate for new COVID tests was 2.34 percent — a recent low. Hospitalizations dropped by a net of 37 patients statewide for a total of 327 — the lowest since mid-August.

Officials have said the state’s vaccine rate, one of the highest in the nation, may have helped avoid dramatic increases of cases seen this summer in other parts of the country.

With more than 77 percent of eligible residents fully vaccinated in Connecticut, the vast majority of whom receiving either Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines, a booster approval could mean providers will have to administer millions of more shots.

But unlike the initial vaccine rollout, which started last December with roughly 15,000 doses per week allotted to the state by the federal government, demand is not an apparent concern should boosters get approved.

“DPH stresses that there is a more than adequate supply of vaccine available as well as an ample supply of providers who will administer the boosters. At this point in time, Connecticut has a network of vaccine providers that includes more than 500 pharmacy locations and over 200 other health care providers. In addition, many of our leading hospitals and health systems are ready to set up dedicated COVID vaccine clinics when boosters may be recommended,” Boyle said.

Hartford HealthCare, one of the state’s largest vaccine providers, said Monday it was well prepared to offer any booster shot should it gain approval.

“We have capacity, from acute settings to our existing clinics. We are looking at expansion in our community clinics, as well. I think one important thing to note is that Hartford HealthCare has had a very robust mobile platform to provide vaccinations to individuals who have had difficulty getting ... vaccinations. We will continue to meet the demand as the boosters are rolled out across Connecticut,” said Dr. Ajay Kumar, Hartford HealthCare’s chief clinical officer.

The push for boosters from federal officials came amid a surge in new cases from the delta variant, along with an emerging rise in breakthrough infections, which involve people who have been fully vaccinated.

However, the surge in delta infections and the increase in new breakthrough infections have leveled off in recent weeks in Connecticut.

And, with limited information about boosters, a debate has surfaced over whether they are medically necessary.

An opinion piece authored by a number of experts, including two FDA scientists that was published in the medical journal, The Lancet, asserted that boosters are not yet needed as the research shows the current regimen still offers a strong level of protection against severe COVID-19 infections.

“Even if boosting were eventually shown to decrease the medium-term risk of serious disease, current vaccine supplies could save more lives if used in previously unvaccinated populations than if used as boosters in vaccinated populations,” the article read.

Amid this uncertainty, Dr. Ulysses Wu, the chief epidemiologist for Hartford HealthCare, stressed Monday that these vaccines overall are safe and an important tool to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The vaccine works. Regardless of whatever needs to be done, whether it’s boosters or its waiting for approval, or uncertainty over J&J, Moderna or Pfizer, whatever it may be, the vaccine work,” Wu said. “This is our pathway forward if we are going to beat this disease.”