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Monday, December 11, 2023
Dec. 11, 2023

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What Washington needs to know about the new omicron-specific COVID boosters


While many Americans say they’ve resumed life as if COVID-19 were in the rearview mirror, people are still dying, different variants of the coronavirus continue to emerge and the way officials are trying to grapple with the disease is evolving.

On Wednesday, the U.S. authorized its first update to COVID-19 vaccine booster doses that target the most common omicron variant. Shots could begin within days.

Here’s what you need to know about the new booster shots.

What’s different about these shots?

The formula for the modified boosters is a tweak on the recipe of the original mRNA shots made by Pfizer and rival Moderna. They contain half the original vaccine recipe and half protection against the newest omicron versions, called BA.4 and BA.5, that are considered the most contagious yet.

Who should get the new booster?

An advisory panel for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will debate Thursday and is expected to issue suggestions on who should get the new booster, including whether people at high risk for COVID-19 should go first.

If past booster recommendations are any indication, the agency could ultimately recommend people who are most vulnerable to severe disease, including people 65 and older and those near 50 with multiple health problems, have first access to the boosters.

However, there’s some indication they will be more widely recommended.

“As we head into fall and begin to spend more time indoors, we strongly encourage anyone who is eligible to consider receiving a booster dose with a bivalent COVID-19 vaccine to provide better protection against currently circulating variants,” U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf said in a statement.

Will Americans have to pay for their boosters moving forward?

The U.S. government anticipates that without additional funds from Congress, it will have to stop purchasing and providing free COVID-19 shots to Americans as early as January.

That means people would have to obtain shots through insurers or pay for them out-of-pocket as they do with most other vaccines, including seasonal flu shots. Pfizer and Moderna have charged the U.S. government between $15 and $30 per dose, depending on the size of the supply contract. Moderna has previously indicated it would charge between $32 and $37 per dose for its vaccine.

But what about Washingtonians?

Gubernatorial spokesperson Mike Faulk said Gov. Jay Inslee’s office is working with relevant agencies to determine what actions the state may need to take to ensure continued vaccine access, both primary series and boosters, for uninsured or underinsured Washingtonians. Those with private insurance or Apple Health coverage will continue to have access to vaccines with no cost-sharing, Faulk said in an email.

Did the federal government end its distribution of free at-home coronavirus tests?

The federal government said this week that due to a lack of funding, people will no longer be able to order free at-home coronavirus tests on its site after Friday.

Can we still get free at-home tests in Washington?

Yes. Free at-home tests are still available through the Washington State Department of Health website. Spokesperson Raechel Sims said the agency had been receiving orders of about 2,000-4,000 per day. But that number swelled to 17,000-20,000 daily after the federal government announced it would no longer distribute the tests for free.

How long are the free tests expected to be available in our state?

There’s still plenty of inventory to meet the state’s at-home testing demands, Sims said, noting that officials have no plan to end or change the program.

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