FILE PHOTO: A woman holds a medical syringe and a small bottle labelled "Coronavirus COVID-19 Vaccine (copy)

El Paso County residents will start receiving COVID-19 booster shots this week. File photo Dado Ruvic/Reuters 

Seniors, health care workers and other high-risk workers in El Paso County will start receiving COVID-19 booster shots this week, amid a somewhat disjointed rollout of the next round of coronavirus prevention.  

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Pfizer booster doses Wednesday for seniors 65 and older, adults with underlying health conditions, and workers in high-risk positions, The Associated Press reported. A panel for the agency rejected a proposal Friday for everyone 16 and older to receive boosters citing a lack of safety data on extra doses and raising doubts about the value of mass boosters.

However, the boosters still face review from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, which is expected to make more specific recommendations about who should get the shots this week. 

The boosters shots have been anticipated for months to help ward off waning immunity particularly among older adults who were the first to get immunized at the beginning of the year.

There is no clear timeline for when Moderna or Johnson & Johnson boosters may be approved or recommended, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said. 

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While the CDC has yet to reach an official decision, UCHealth is moving forward with distributing boosters to seniors and other high-risk people this week, health system spokeswoman Cary Vogrin said. The boosters are recommended for those who were vaccinated six months or more ago. 

UCHealth is offering the booster vaccinations — either Pfizer or Moderna — via appointment because clinical trials and UCHealth’s data shows protection from vaccines may diminish over time and increase the risk for breakthrough infections, she said.  

“We know booster shots play an important role in the fight against COVID-19, and we’re still in the midst of a pandemic,” said Michelle Barron, senior medical director of infection prevention at UCHealth, in a statement. 

Optum, a large primary care provider in town, is also contacting its senior patients and encouraging them to come for booster shots, said spokeswoman Amy Knapp. 

Last month, UCHealth and other vaccine providers started giving third doses of COVID-19 vaccines to immunocompromised patients, including transplant recipients, cancer patients and those taking medications that weaken the immune system. In these cases, the third dose was intended to allow patients with specific conditions to build the same immunity as those who had received two doses, according to the CDC. 

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Centura has decided to wait to administer boosters until the CDC issues its final guidance, spokeswoman Lindsay Radford said. Once the guidance is issued, she said Centura will be ready to give the shots. 

"We anticipate we will see a spike in demand for vaccinations and we are prepared," she said. 

Gov. Jared Polis promoted the boosters during a news conference Tuesday, saying that older adults, including those in their 70s, 80s and 90s can attest that they have a weakened immune system to receive a booster shot. 

"There is nobody that needs to come between you and your booster vaccine," he said. 

The state has plenty of vaccine supply to distribute boosters and initial doses to the unvaccinated, he said. Since the FDA has fully approved the Pfizer vaccine, providers can choose to administer booster doses using their own medical license, the state health department said. 

El Paso County spokeswoman Michelle Hewitt advised seniors who have questions about whether they need a booster to speak with their doctor. 

Booster clinics for residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities are also expected to start this week, the state health department said. 

"We have reached out to approximately 1,100 long-term care facilities in the state to offer a clinic or confirm that a COVID-19 vaccine provider has scheduled one for them," the state said in a statement. 

All long-term care facilities residents should be offered another shot by Oct. 18, it said. 

In El Paso County, the more than 60 long-term care facilities need to have a plan for protecting their residents and staff and the county has been assisting with that work, said Brenda Heimbach, health services division director at El Paso County Public Health. During the initial vaccine rollout, national pharmacies were contracted to provide vaccines in the long-term care facilities, but that's not the case this time, she said, during a Board of Health meeting Wednesday. 

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As part of the booster rollout, the state is not going to hold the same large mass vaccination clinics that operated earlier the year, she said. The booster will be widely available at many clinics following CDC approval. 

"They feel like the provider network is now broad enough and dispersed more equitably throughout counties that they don’t need to do that any longer," she said. 

Across El Paso County, about 3,000 residents have received a third dose since Sept. 1, Hewitt said. The county expects to make data about boosters publicly available on its website soon. 

UCHealth is allowing residents 65 and older, health care workers who may have contact with COVID-19 patients, emergency medical responders, home health care workers, pharmacy workers, correctional workers, dental staff, funeral services and other health care workers to schedule booster shot appointments.

Schedule a booster vaccine through UCHealth at uchealth.org/access-my-health-connection/.

Once CDC guidance is issued, booster vaccine shots can be scheduled at Centura.org/vaccine.

Contact the writer at mary.shinn@gazette.com or (719) 429-9264.

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