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Local health officials set to give COVID-19 boosters once U.S. OKs them

Marie and Donald Maloy of East Rockaway get

Marie and Donald Maloy of East Rockaway get their COVID-19 booster shots at a Mount Sinai South Nassau vaccination site in Rockville Centre on Wednesday. Credit: Danielle Silverman

Health officials on Long Island said they are prepared to administer COVID-19 booster shots to a large group of people almost immediately if federal authorities sign off on them in the coming days.

Plans hinge on what a U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory panel has to say about booster shots at a meeting Friday, followed by a recommendation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc. is advocating for the booster because it said some studies have shown its vaccine starts to become less effective over time. The company said a booster could help keep people protected against the coronavirus, especially the contagious delta variant, which is now the dominant strain.

WHAT TO KNOW

A U.S. Food and Drug Administration panel on Friday will review data on whether booster shots should be offered to fully vaccinated people.

County health departments and health systems on Long Island say they are prepared to administer COVID-19 booster shots if a federal panel approves them.

Gov. Kathy Hochul said the state will provide money and support to local health departments to make sure the booster shots are easily available to vaccinated New Yorkers.

It’s unclear whether the boosters would be approved for everyone who has been vaccinated, or smaller groups such as health care workers and the elderly. The shots could be given at either six or eight months after the second dose.

"We’re still waiting for guidance, but I think that it is a high possibility that we will begin with health care workers and the elderly because they are reaching that six- to eight-month mark and are at the highest risk for exposure and consequences," said Dr. Matthew Harris, medical director of the COVID-19 vaccination program at Northwell Health.

The latest figures show 68.5% of people in Nassau County and 62.1% in Suffolk County are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

"We are awaiting guidance from the FDA and the CDC concerning the plan for booster shots and eligible populations," said Grace Kelly-McGovern, a spokesperson for the Suffolk County Department of Health.

If the boosters are approved, she said, eligible people can make appointments or just walk in to get the shots at vaccination centers at various locations, including in Middle Island, Hauppauge, Bay Shore, Riverhead and West Babylon.

In Nassau, "We will be prepared to assist with administering boosters to our residents, but we are still awaiting guidance from the CDC before formalizing any plans," county spokesperson Vicki DeStefano said.

Gov. Kathy Hochul said local health agencies will play a key role in getting booster shots to the public and pledged $65 million in state and federal funds to help them get it done.

"I wanted to make sure that all of our local health agencies knew that our expectation is very high, that they put the infrastructure in place, because they told me all through last year they know how to do this," Hochul said during a Wednesday news conference. "This is what they do and do best, but I will always have the resources of the state to back them up."

Hochul said the state will continue some of its mass vaccination sites to administer the booster shots, as well as pop-up and drive-thru locations.

Pfizer points to data from Israel

The FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee is set to discuss on Friday dueling data on whether a booster from Pfizer-BioNTech is needed to give vaccinated people 16 years and older better protection against COVID-19. The CDC is expected to make a recommendation after the FDA weighs in.

In briefing documents submitted to the FDA, Pfizer pointed to data from Israel showing the booster restored "high levels of protection" — about 95% — for vaccinated people. The booster would be the same as the first or second dose.

The FDA already has approved a third dose of both the two-shot Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for a smaller group of immunocompromised people such as transplant recipients.

Some health experts, however, have argued the booster is not necessary and the vaccine would be better used to help inoculate people around the globe. Two FDA scientists, who have said they are leaving the agency, helped author an article this week in the medical journal The Lancet arguing that current evidence does not show "a need for boosting the general population, in which efficacy against severe disease remains high."

People who received the two-dose Moderna vaccine and single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine may have to wait longer for boosters. Moderna recently sent its application for boosters to the FDA, and it is under review. Data on boosters for Johnson & Johnson's single-dose vaccine may not be available for several months, officials said.

Partnerships likely

The Nassau and Suffolk health departments likely will partner with hospital systems, as they did earlier this year, to administer the boosters.

"We anticipated that boosters were a possibility many months ago, and we have already developed the physical infrastructure sites if need be, but we've also made the vaccines available in the ambulatory setting, such as our clinics," Harris said.

Dr. Marc Adler, chief medical officer at NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island, said hospital employees will be able to get the shots at a conference center on-site, and patients of its group practices can get them at select offices.

"We’ll be focusing on certain locations so that it will run like a well-oiled machine," Adler said. "People can make appointments easily, get their booster shot conveniently and through the guidance of their physician."

Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital in Oceanside already is using its mobile vaccination vehicle, the Vaxmobile, to administer third shots to immunocompromised people and could expand that capacity if the booster receives federal approval, hospital spokesman Joe Calderone said. It has administered vaccines at the hospital and a site in Rockville Centre, as well as in the Vaxmobile.

"We will be ready to administer booster shots to our patients when one is approved for the general public, and we will be awaiting advice from the FDA and from the New York State Department of Health concerning how best to administer the booster program," Calderone said.

A spokeswoman for CVS Pharmacies also said the company is "fully prepared to play a leading role in providing booster shots this fall" once it receives guidance from the federal government.

New York City is readying more than 1,900 sites — including 25 run directly by the city — to administer booster shots beginning as soon as next week, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday. Most booster shots will likely be done by appointment, but the city would offer walk-ins slots as well, he said.

De Blasio said the city would blast out calls, emails and other messages to reach tens of thousands of people to encourage participation in what he's calling the NYC Booster Shot Plan. The messages are to go out "the second we get the information" from the federal government.

Dr. Dave Chokshi, the city’s health commissioner, said he expected lines at first, but that those who are elderly or have other mobility problems would be moved to the front.

The focus on boosters comes as some people remain hesitant to get vaccinated in the first place.

A state mandate requiring all health care workers in hospitals and nursing homes to receive at least one vaccine dose by Sept. 27 was temporarily blocked by a federal judge earlier this week after a group of health care workers challenged it with a lawsuit.

Harris said Northwell is already planning for the possibility that vaccines could be approved for use in children younger than 12 in the coming months.

"We have never let our guard down," he said. "Our vaccine emergency operations group meets three times a week in preparation for boosters. We are planning now for pediatric vaccines. We would be remiss not to be prepared."

With Matthew Chayes

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