A new COVID-19 vaccine booster that is formulated to protect against currently circulating variants is available beginning this week in Alaska, according to state health officials.
The new shot is for Alaskans 12 and older who are at least two months out from completing their primary two-dose vaccine series or any previous booster shot no matter how many they’ve received, according to Dr. Joe McLaughlin, Alaska’s state epidemiologist.
Called a “bivalent” COVID-19 booster, the new shot will target both the original coronavirus and two highly contagious omicron subvariants — BA.4 and BA.5 — that make up the vast majority of the virus currently circulating in the state.
As the original coronavirus mutated over time, the original vaccine has become less and less effective at preventing infection and symptomatic illness, McLaughlin said in an interview. It has also become less effective at preventing more severe illness, “although it’s still quite effective at that,” he said.
“This new bivalent vaccine is more specific to the current strains,” McLaughlin said. “So the anticipation is that it will be much more effective at not only preventing infection and symptomatic illness, but also at preventing more severe outcomes.”
Real-world data on just how much more effective the new bivalent booster shots are compared to the original formulation won’t be available for another month or so, McLaughlin said.
Still, he encouraged all Alaskans who are eligible for the booster to consider getting it as a form of added protection, even those who aren’t considered higher risk or have already tested positive.
“We’re still seeing a lot of breakthrough infections and a lot of repeat infections,” he said. “And people who get the breakthrough and the repeat infections are still at risk for longer term consequences of long COVID — persistent cough, persistent fatigue, insomnia, things like that, that can last for months, and in some cases, years.”
The hope is that the new booster can also reduce the number of hospitalizations and deaths caused by the virus, McLaughlin said.
Moderna and Pfizer received emergency use authorizations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last week. Moderna’s booster is approved for Alaskans 18 and older, and Pfizer’s is approved for people 12 and older. Alaskans can choose either company’s booster regardless of which one they received previously.
Alaska has ordered more than 38,000 doses of the two companies’ bivalent booster vaccines, according to Sarah Aho, acting immunization program manager with the state health department. At least 9,000 doses have already arrived in the state and been delivered to pharmacies, with more on the way — and more appointments are expected to open up at providers’ offices throughout the next week, Aho said.
A quick search for available appointments at vaccines.gov showed the bivalent booster was available at Walgreens in Anchorage, Wasilla and Fairbanks, and at Costco in Juneau as of Thursday morning.
Both Costco locations in Anchorage also had the vaccines in stock as of Thursday, though those seeking the new booster may need to make an appointment in advance depending on location and demand. The Fairbanks Costco had not received any of the new booster vaccine by Thursday morning.
Alaskans who’ve had COVID-19 very recently should consider waiting just a bit before getting the new booster, McLaughlin said.
“Studies have shown that an increased time interval between infection and vaccination might result in an improved immune response to vaccination,” he said. “Waiting three months after your most recent infection might prove to be maximally beneficial for getting maximal immune response due to the booster dose.”
The original formulas of Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and Novavax vaccines will continue to be used for primary series.
The vaccine is still free to both the insured and uninsured — it is purchased by the federal government — but some places may charge an administrative fee, so it’s worth asking whether this is the case when making an appointment, Aho said.
COVID-19 and flu vaccines are available at most pharmacies and health care providers’ offices around the state, and Alaskans can visit vaccines.gov, text their ZIP code to 438829 or call Alaska’s COVID-19 helpline at 907-646-3322 from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on weekdays to get help finding an appointment.