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As COVID outlook improves across North Carolina, Omicron-specific boosters expected to offer ‘critical’ protections

500,000 doses of the new updated booster arriving in NC over the next two weeks

The latest wave of the COVID-19 virus is showing modest signs of improvement with 43 counties with a high risk of illness and strain on the health care system. That’s down from 62 high risk counties the previous week.

As August drew to a close, the state reported 20,855 new cases of COVID last week with 1,120 hospital admissions.

North Carolina State Health Director and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Betsey Tilson told Policy Watch in a recent interview that vaccination remains the best protection against the virus as teachers and students return to the classroom.

“For our teachers and staff, being up-to-date on their vaccines and boosting is really, really important because their risk of exposure will likely get higher as we go into the fall and winter,” said Tilson. “What we really want to do is protect people from severe illness, hospitalization and death and being up-to-date on those vaccines and boosters is the best way to prevent that severe illness, and we for sure want that for our teachers, our staff and our students.”

Tilson explained while we have more immunity in our community from vaccination and past infection, staying current on the boosters is an added layer of protection.

Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

On Wednesday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration amended the emergency use authorizations of the Moderna and the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines to authorize bivalent formulations.

The updated boosters contain two messenger RNA (mRNA) components of SARS-CoV-2 virus – one of the original strain of the virus,  the other one in common with the BA.4 and BA.5 lineages of the omicron variant.

Targeting the omicron subvariants is an important advancement in the pandemic. The BA.5 subvariant accounted for 84% of the cases in North Carolina the week of August 20th. Another 11% were the BA 4.6 variety.

FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert M. Califf called the updated boosters “an opportunity” to get ahead of the next wave of the virus.

“These updated boosters are critical in helping protect teens and adults from the most serious outcomes of COVID-19 caused by the currently circulating variant. Regrettably only about half of eligible Americans have received their first booster dose.”

FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert M. Califf

Califf noted that those who are up-to-date on their vaccines have a thirteen-fold lower risk of dying from COVID compared to those with no vaccination and a three-fold lower risk of dying for those who only had one booster compared to two.

“So this is a remarkable opportunity to improve our life expectancy and reduce the toll of mortality in our population,” Califf added.

For the Moderna vaccine, individuals 18 years of age and older will be eligible for a single booster dose of the Bivalent vaccine if it has been at least two months since they have completed their primary vaccination or received the most recent booster dose.

For Pfizer-BioNTech, individuals 12 years of age and older will be eligible for a single booster dose of the Bivalent vaccine if it has been at least two months since they have completed primary vaccination or had their last booster dose.

The CDC signed off on the boosters on Thursday.

In North Carolina, 77% of the total adult population has had at least one dose of a COVID vaccine. However, only 30% of children and teens (age 6 months-17) have received one dose of protection.

Source: NCDHHS COVID Vaccination dashboard

The COVID vaccination rate has been relatively flat for most of the summer with just under 5,000 first doses and 3,800 second doses administered last week.

Dr. Betsey Tilson

But Dr. Tilson remains optimistic that those who have been holding off will take advantage of the new doses targeting the Omicron subvariants as soon as those become available after the Labor Day holiday.

North Carolina has nearly 500,000 doses arriving in state over the next two weeks. Pharmacies working with the federal government will receive 229,000 of those early doses.

Tilson also notes it’s not too early to start thinking about your annual flu shot.

Both can be received at the same time, according to the CDC.

For more on COVID, mask-wearing heading into this fall, and the latest on monkeypox, be sure to listen to our full interview below with State Health Director and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Betsey Tilson:

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As COVID outlook improves across North Carolina, Omicron-specific boosters expected to offer ‘critical’ protections