New COVID Boosters May Quell Fall Outbreaks
By Donald Gilpin
COVID-19 rates continue to remain relatively low in the area, and hopes are high that the recently approved COVID booster that targets the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 strains of the virus will help to prevent outbreaks this fall.
Last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved new booster shots that combat the two subvariants that currently make up almost all COVID-19 cases. The new booster doses are already being distributed locally and across the country.
Princeton Deputy Administrator for Health and Community Services Jeff Grosser said that the Princeton Health Department would be updating their vaccine clinic schedule as soon as they get word on when the new bivalent vaccines will be arriving. In the meantime, some area pharmacies, clinics, and doctors’ offices will have boosters available.
The new bivalent booster, which targets the original strain of the coronavirus as well the Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5, will replace the former booster shot for individuals over age 12. The new Moderna booster will be available for age 18 and older, the Pfizer booster for 12 and older. Individuals are advised to wait at least two months following primary or booster vaccinations before receiving the new booster.
“The most recent variants have evaded immunity from vaccines and prior infections, and both Moderna and Pfizer have their own updated booster, “ said Grosser. “Certainly those who are high-risk individuals would benefit from a booster dose now, including older adults, or individuals with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, cancer, and those who are moderately or severely immunocompromised.”
In a September 2 announcement recommending the new boosters, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said, “I continue to encourage everyone to get vaccinated and to stay up to date on their boosters, as vaccines are our greatest tool in the fight against COVID-19.”
Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli added, “With children back in school and the upcoming fall and winter holidays, the new bivalent vaccine will give New Jerseyans additional protections against these highly transmissible subvariants.”
More than 800 sites in New Jersey are expected to have bivalent booster doses soon, with locations offering the boosters on the COVID-19 Vaccine Finder and Community Calendar at covid19.nj.gov.
In reflecting on this week’s return to school and the prospects for keeping the COVID-19 spread low in spite of relaxed restrictions, Grosser cited CDC and NJDOH protocols. He emphasized “following personal responsibility for protecting oneself while reviewing what is happening on a local/regional level.”
Although the focus on mask mandates, testing, and long isolation periods has diminished, Grosser noted that these preventative public health measures will continue to assist in the case of clustered outbreaks in classrooms or school buildings.
“The updated guidance from the CDC and the New Jersey Department of Health did increase focus on the importance of vaccination and school/classroom ventilation,” he said. “The new guidance also is steering towards widespread notification of potential disease exposure (similar to how flu and other illnesses are handled in the school environment) and less on specific student or faculty contact tracing.”
New Jersey health officials on September 5 reported declining COVID-19 case numbers and a transmission rate of 0.92, with a rate below 1 indicating that each new case is generating fewer than one additional case.
Mercer County is one of 11 New Jersey counties considered by the CDC to be at “medium risk” for COVID transmission. Three counties, down from 18 a month ago, are in the “high risk” category, and seven New Jersey counties are considered “low risk.”
There also seems to be some good news, at least locally, in staving off the monkeypox virus, but Grosser noted that health officials are remaining vigilant.
The NJDOH on September 6 reported 594 cases of monkeypox in New Jersey, with most in northern counties close to New York City, and only 18 cases reported in Mercer County. There have been 37 hospitalizations in New Jersey attributed to the monkeypox virus and no deaths. As of September 2, California had reported the most infections of any state with 3,833, followed by New York with 3,403. The national total was 19,962, according to the CDC.
“There is still much left to do in regards to the ongoing outbreak of monkeypox cases in New Jersey,” said Grosser. “Yes, Mercer County has a relatively low number of cases compared to other parts of the state, particularly North Jersey, but as we have seen with other diseases those cases can migrate south in a quick, unpredictable way.”
He added, “The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that disease surveillance continues to be the primary tool public health utilizes to adequately respond to emerging diseases. The faster we can identify a case and or contacts of a case, the more effectively we can stomp out future disease spread.”
The Princeton Health Department is continuing to work with individuals exposed to or infected with monkeypox, and New Jersey has mobilized 16 vaccination sites for New Jersey residents.
For New Jersey residents with known exposure to a person with monkeypox, the two-dose regimen for preventing monkeypox is available through the health department. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or the public health nurse at email@example.com.
Residents who don’t have a known exposure but have been in situations where there was a high risk of exposure are eligible to receive the vaccine through what is known as expanded vaccination. Eligible individuals can make an appointment at a vaccine location (see New Jersey DOH at nj.gov) or through the Princeton Health Department.
The NJDOH receives monkeypox vaccines from the federal government, and they are provided at no cost to eligible individuals.