Sep. 2—New booster shots targeting the latest omicron strains of COVID-19 are on their way to Maine, as the state's public health system prepares to launch another vaccination campaign to combat the virus.
The booster shots will be available to everyone 12 and older, and ample supplies of the shots should be flowing into the state within the next two weeks, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention officials said. The booster shots cleared the last regulatory hurdle Thursday, when the U.S. CDC gave the final OK, days after approval by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.
Maine CDC spokesman Robert Long said 80,500 shots will be arriving in Maine "through a variety of channels" as part of the federal government's rollout of the omicron-targeting booster shot. The shots will be given in pharmacies, doctor's offices, hospitals, health clinics, tribal health systems and other health care settings. Across the U.S., more than 170 million booster doses are expected to be distributed.
While demand is expected to be high, it won't be like the crushing demand experienced as vaccines first became widely available in early 2021, when Maine set up mass vaccination clinics at Scarborough Downs, the Portland Expo, Cross Insurance Center in Bangor and other places.
Vaccines are expected to be widely available as soon as next week or the week of Sept. 12. Patients should be at least two months past their last dose before getting the omicron booster shot. Both Pfizer and Moderna boosters will be available, with Pfizer approved for those 12 and older and Moderna for those 18 and older.
Dr. Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth, the parent company of Maine Medical Center in Portland, seven other hospitals and a network of primary care practices and specialists, said she expects a robust supply of booster shots by the week of Sept. 12.
"We're expecting a pretty large demand, and also you should be able to get the flu vaccine at the same time," she said. "I get the sense that people are more excited about this booster, which is tweaked for the BA.4 and BA.5 (omicron) variants circulating now. They think it's going to be more effective, and they're right, it probably is going to be."
Maine's vaccination rates are high, with 75 percent fully vaccinated and 62 percent with at least one booster dose. Nationally, 68 percent of the population is fully vaccinated and 35 percent have had at least one booster dose.
While the COVID-19 vaccines have held up over time, especially in preventing severe illness and death from the disease, the virus has mutated and is now infecting more people who have been vaccinated. However, infections in vaccinated people are much more likely to be mild compared to those in the unvaccinated.
Mills said the new formulation of the COVID-19 vaccine is similar to how the flu shot is handled every year, when scientists attempt to match the influenza vaccine with what are expected to be the dominant strains for the upcoming winter flu season.
Mills said she is optimistic the booster will help blunt the pandemic.
"Vaccine is like water on the fire," she said. "This vaccine, the data were impressive in terms of safety and efficacy."
Dr. Donald Medd, an internist at MaineHealth's office in Westbrook, said he doesn't expect demand for the next round of boosters to be as high as before, but plenty of patients are asking about them.
"For a while I've been saying, 'Just wait a month and get the updated booster,' " he said Friday. "So we'll see what the demand is. I think we'll offer it as part of routine visits for some patients and we might add some pop-up clinics too. But people are used to going to pharmacies as well, so I think whatever option works best."
Medd said health practitioners will likely treat COVID-19 similar to the flu in the future.
"I think the difference with COVID is how transmissible it is," he said. "But certainly, outcomes are better, and we have better treatments."
Mills advised patients against trying to time booster shots to a potential winter COVID surge, because it's unknown if and when a surge will take place.
"If you are 50 and older — and the older you are the higher risk you are of severe disease — the more highly I would recommend people get the booster sooner rather than later," she said.
Amelia Arnold, pharmacy operations manager for Community Pharmacies, which owns nine pharmacies in Maine, including locations in Gorham and Saco, said they expect to start scheduling appointments for the new omicron booster next week.
Arnold said they are "getting a fair number of inquiries" from customers about the new booster and "expect many more after the holiday weekend."
Dr. Nirav Shah, Maine CDC director, said in a series of tweets Friday that the boosters will help "restore protection that has waned" since previous vaccinations.
"The vaccines still work, but they needed an update," Shah said. "The same way your phone still works, but updating it makes it work better."