Kansas providers forge ahead on boosters. Those eligible for 3rd shots are 65+ or at high risk for COVID

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Kansas providers are forging ahead in their planning on COVID-19 booster doses, despite delays to the original timeline laid out by federal health officials.

Kansas providers are forging ahead in their planning on COVID-19 booster doses, despite delays to the original timeline laid out by federal health officials and indications that a narrower group of individuals will be seeking the third shots than initially anticipated.

A key federal advisory committee on Friday recommended a third dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine six months after full vaccination for people 65 and older and those at high risk of severe COVID-19.

But there isn’t yet sufficient evidence to show boosters for people under 65 are necessary, said members of the Food and Drug Administration’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee. High-risk workers are the exception, with that category including those in the health care sector, first responders and people likely to be exposed to the virus at work.

This doesn't mean the vaccines aren't safe — in fact, the decision is a sign that individuals are protected by the shots and thus don't need a booster currently.

But this development threw a wrench in the plans of President Joe Biden's administration, which planned to start offering the booster doses to the broader public this week.

More:Kansas providers are making plans for COVID-19 booster doses. Here is what we know for now.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told "Meet the Press" the plan was always conditional on getting FDA approval. He added he was confident the original plan would eventually be vindicated.

"I believe, as a scientist who's been following it, that ultimately the real proper regimen will turn out to be the original two shots plus a boost," Fauci said. "But you want to do that according to what the data tells you."

Data on the potential need for Moderna and Johnson & Johnson booster doses remains a couple of weeks away, Fauci said, meaning there is not yet a timetable on when those might be approved. The CDC has not yet issued guidance recommending individuals who got one type of vaccine to receive a different type for their booster shot.

Kansas providers initially were set to follow the Biden administration's timeframe, with more and more bandwidth being shifted to planning for the third doses. Local health departments and health systems have already been giving out additional doses for immunocompromised individuals after federal approval last month.

Some states have taken unilateral action amid confusion over what the current recommendations are. In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan said he would give nursing homes and other congregate facilities the option of giving the booster doses to residents, defying the federal guidance in arguing that group effectively has compromised immune systems.

"For several weeks now, states have had to operate without clear guidance from the federal government regarding these booster shots," Hogan said when he announced the move.

More:FDA panel recommends Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 booster shots only for people 65 and older or at high risk

New developments could prompt tweaks to Kansas COVID vaccine booster strategy

In Kansas, however, providers have been more even-keeled about the uncertainty. Dennis Kriesel, executive director of the Kansas Association of Local Health Departments, noted county health officials understood that the Biden plan was subject to approval from the appropriate regulatory bodies.

But that wasn't necessarily true for residents, who have been confused about the plan — especially as providers began giving out the additional doses for immunocompromised residents.

"The public was expecting them because the the president had articulated it in a way that it was going to be for everyone, as of today," he said.

If the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approves the plan to allow booster doses for those 65 and older, as well as frontline workers, Kriesel noted there would still be high demand for the booster shots. 

More:Pfizer-BioNTech say low dose of its COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective for kids 5-11

Johnson County was set to restart mass vaccine clinics to cope with the expected demand, although such events are likely to be the exception rather than the rule. All indications are the state has more than enough vaccine supply in reserve to cope with any rise in vaccinations when boosters become more widely available.

"They'll still probably plan some (events), but maybe not as many as they thought," he said.

The uncertainty comes amid some more positive news for vaccination in Kansas. Last week, the state crossed the 50% threshold where over half of all individuals have been fully vaccinated. Meanwhile, 59% have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine.

And Pfizer said Monday morning that new data showed its vaccine is safe and effective for children ages 5 to 11 at one-third the dose used in adolescents and adults.

More:Staff members aim to keep Kansas hospitals afloat amid COVID-19 surge

That has renewed hopes the shots could be available to younger children by the end of October, opening up another avenue to increase the overall vaccination rate in Kansas and throughout the country.

The state has seen new COVID-19 cases ebb and flow over the course of the last week, although hospitals say they are still stretched to capacity. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported an increase of 2,462 cases since Friday, as well as an increase of 51 deaths and 46 new hospitalizations.

USA Today' reporters Elizabeth Weise and Karen Weintraub contributed reporting

Andrew Bahl is a senior statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at abahl@gannett.com or by phone at 443-979-6100.