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News / Health / Health Wire

New COVID vaccines may be a ‘few weeks’ from becoming common in Washington, the state Department of Health says

By Amanda Sullender, The Spokesman-Review
Published: September 20, 2023, 7:20am

SPOKANE — Formulated to target emerging variants, newly approved COVID-19 vaccines may still be a “couple weeks” from becoming widely available in Spokane and the rest of Washington, according to the state Department of Health.

Beginning last week, the CDC recommends everyone 6 months and older receive an updated COVID vaccine as long as it has been at least two months since the last coronavirus vaccine. While most adults and adolescents will only need a single dose of the new vaccine to achieve adequate protection, the dose for children between six months and 5 years of age will vary based on their age and previous vaccination status. The Department of Health urges parents of young children to speak with their primary healthcare provider to determine exact dosage.

“Going forward, everyone will receive this new 2023-24 version, including young children who are just starting their primary round of vaccines,” said Washington state Department of Health spokesperson Michele Roberts. “The virus that causes COVID-19 is always changing and protection from COVID-19 vaccines does decline over time. Receiving an updated COVID-19 vaccine increases protection and also provides enhanced protection against the variants that are currently responsible for most infections in the U.S.”

Unlike many of the COVID vaccine updates since the first version was released in late 2021, the new formula is not a booster. Instead, it is a new version of the mRNA vaccine specifically targeting the omicron variants of the virus most prevalent in the United States over the past year or more.

Here’s what you should know before scheduling your next shot.

Are COVID vaccines still free?

Previous versions of the COVID vaccine were distributed for free after being purchased in bulk by the federal government. Rollout of the new vaccine will be the first to be distributed under commercialization — meaning those wanting the shot will need to use their insurance, pay out of pocket or apply for a free vaccine through a remaining federal program. This vaccine access mirrors how most other vaccines are distributed and paid for before the onset of the pandemic.

According to the Department of Health, most people will “still receive the vaccine for free,” Roberts said. Most health insurance plans will fully cover the COVID shot in the United States. Be sure your pharmacy or primary care physician administering the vaccine has your insurance information.

Those without insurance can still access the vaccine for free through several federal programs. The CDC’s Bridge Access Program provides free COVID-19 vaccines to those over 18 without insurance. Visit vaccines.gov to find providers that offer no-cost COVID-19 vaccines through the Bridge Access Program. There are 11 participating pharmacies in the Spokane area, primarily comprised of Walgreens.

Uninsured and underinsured children are eligible to receive no-cost COVID-19 vaccines through the federal Vaccines for Children program.

While the vaccine itself is free, doctors can charge a standard fee to administer each shot. But if the family can’t afford the fee per shot, the fee must be excused. There can be other fees associated with the visit, including nonvaccine services that may take place.

When will the new vaccine become available in Spokane?

After being approved, previous versions of the vaccine began being administered almost immediately. Even though it has been more than a week since the CDC gave the green light to the new formula, it may not reach pharmacies for some time because they are no longer being approved on an emergency basis.

“The end of the emergency means it’s going to take a couple of weeks for vaccines to start being available to all providers, so this means it may take a little bit longer for you to receive your updated dose,” Roberts said.

Different pharmacies and health care providers across Washington and the state at large may receive the new vaccine at different times. The state Department of Health recommends those interested in the vaccine contact their primary care physician and schedule the shot a few weeks out.

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“There is going to be plenty of vaccine to go around, but it may take some time. In the meantime, talk to your provider to learn more about scheduling options,” Roberts said.

COVID is on the upswing locally

Though still much lower than previous high rates of infection, COVID-19 transmission has been increasing both nationally and locally this summer.

Providence Chief Medical Officer for the Inland Northwest Dr. Dan Getz said Sacred Heart and other Providence providers have seen a recent increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

“What we’re seeing in the community is an uptick in people testing positive for COVID, as well as hospitalizations, and this is translating to what we’re seeing across the country,” Getz said.

A spokesperson for MultiCare, which owns Deaconess Hospital and Rockwood clinics, said their providers have seen a “slight uptick” in COVID-19 emergency department and clinical visits, but a “relatively low” number of these patients need to be hospitalized.

Spokane Health District data has shown a moderate spike in the amount of COVID-19 in county wastewater and a smaller uptick in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

In his weekly Facebook livestream last Wednesday, SRHD Chief Medical Officer Dr. Francisco Velázquez said the county has seen “fluctuation with upward swings” of COVID consistent with national trends.