BOSTON — Health care providers are being urged to prepare for offering COVID-19 vaccine booster shots as the federal government weighs approval of another round of vaccinations.
In a recent advisory, the state Department of Public Health called on providers who have the capacity to immunize people to enroll in the state’s COVID-19 vaccine program and be ready to administer a third round of doses.
The agency said it expects booster shots, when authorized, will be available in traditional health care settings such as doctors offices, community health centers and hospitals, retail pharmacies and local clinics.
“As has been the case with the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Massachusetts residents will have a variety of vaccination options to receive COVID-19 booster doses,” DPH’s acting Commissioner Margret Cooke wrote to providers.
The federal government has announced plans to offer third doses to people who received the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, pending approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Initially, the plan called for giving boosters starting Sept. 20, but officials have acknowledged that Moderna boosters probably won’t be ready then.
The FDA has scheduled a meeting Friday, Sept. 17, to consider Pfizer’s application for COVID-19 booster shots. Moderna is also seeking authorization for boosters.
Federal health officials have already determined third shots are necessary for immunocompromised individuals who didn’t get enough protection from their initial vaccines.
More than 1.3 million people have already received an additional shot, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But a recent CDC and FDA advisory said research shows “the current protection against severe disease, hospitalization and death could diminish in the months ahead, especially among those who are at higher risk or were vaccinated during the earlier phases of the vaccination rollout.”
“For that reason, we conclude that a booster shot will be needed to maximize vaccine-induced protection and prolong its durability,” health officials wrote.
Dr. David Hamer, an infectious disease expert and professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health, said if boosters are authorized for the general population, they will likely be given to the highest-risk populations at first, such as frontline health care workers and the elderly with underlying medical conditions.
He said a third round of shots for the state’s eligible population would likely “be a lot different” than the initial vaccination rollout.
“It’s not going to be at mass vaccination centers like we had before,” he said. “It will be done through primary care providers, hospitals and pharmacies.”
It’s not clear how many people would be interested in a booster shot, but Massachusetts has one of the highest rates of vaccination in the country. As of Monday, more than 4.55 million people were fully vaccinated, according to state health data.
COVID-19 vaccines, which are considered highly effective, prompt immune systems to fight the coronavirus by producing antibodies that block the virus from getting inside cells. Similar to other vaccines for other infectious diseases, those antibodies decline over time.
Federal health officials are recommending boosters at least eight months after becoming fully vaccinated.
Hamer said the focus also needs to stay on reaching the unvaccinated, who account for the overwhelming majority of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
The prevalence of a highly contagious delta variant adds to the urgency, he said.
“Delta is still surging,” Hamer said. “So people need to continue taking precautions, especially if they are older or have underlying medical illnesses.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.