Santa Clara County prepares for potential COVID boosters
Emergency medicine physician Mark Penner prepares to receive the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at O'Connor Hospital in San Jose by holding up his sleeve. File photo by Vicente Vera.

    Santa Clara County is ready to offer all eligible residents COVID-19 booster shots within 24 hours of federal approval, but whether the plan is needed—and to what extent—remains unknown.

    After intense debate Friday, vaccine advisers to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration rejected Pfizer’s request to add a third shot to its two-doses regimen for the general population. Instead, the committee recommended booster shots for people 65 or older and those with higher risk of getting seriously ill from COVID-19.

    Last month, the Biden administration announced plans to roll out booster shots as early as Sept. 20, pending federal review. That date has been pushed back as local health officials must wait for final recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in addition to the FDA’s approval. The CDC is scheduled to vote on the matter next week.

    Santa Clara County health officials told San José Spotlight the county is monitoring the decision.

    “It is imperative that all health care providers, clinics and retail pharmacies work together to best facilitate injections for all those who are eligible,” a county official said Friday.

    Dr. Ahmad Kamal, county director of health care preparedness, told the Board of Supervisors earlier this week that the restricted eligibility will decrease demand.

    “While there’s uncertainty around the final recommendation… we want to ensure timely access to everyone who lives, works or studies in Santa Clara County as soon as they become eligible,” Kamal said. “The idea here is to be overprepared rather than to be underprepared.”

    The call for booster shots comes amid surging positive infections and hospitalizations driven by the Delta variant across the country. Few breakthrough cases have occurred locally, but there is new data showing the vaccines’ effectiveness declines over time. The approved COVID-19 vaccines remain highly effective at preventing serious illness, hospitalizations and deaths, health experts say.

    In Santa Clara County, the additional shot is already available for some residents with health issues.

    Earlier this week, two former FDA officials cosigned a letter with 16 other health experts arguing there’s not enough data to warrant booster shots for the general public.

    Health experts say while the conflicting data might be confusing, it’s to be expected.

    “The evidence that boosters increase immunity is very clear, but how long that will last is not clear,” said Dr. George Rutherford, a professor of epidemiology at UC San Francisco. “Science is confusing, the biological systems are confusing. They don’t behave like perfectly engineered computers or airplanes or cars.”

    Health officials anticipate a more streamlined vaccine rollout this time, Santa Clara County Public Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody said at Tuesday’s meeting, with no shortages of vaccine doses as was the case earlier this year. Retail pharmacies such as Walgreens and private health care systems are also prepared to meet demands, Kamal said.

    Vaccine sites include the county fairgrounds, Emmanuel Baptist Church, Mountain View Community Center, DePaul Health Center and San Martin Vaccination Clinic. These sites will administer both booster shots and regular COVID vaccines, county officials say. The county will also maintain its “no wrong door” policy.

    The only limitation is staffing, Kamal added. It’s not immediately clear how the restricted eligibility for booster shots will affect Santa Clara County’s rollout plan. The county expected more than 1.3 million people to get the booster shots, but that number will fall drastically if federal agencies reject third shots for the general public.

    Roughly 83% of eligible Santa Clara County residents are fully vaccinated for COVID-19 as of Friday.

    Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter. 

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