Polis urges older Coloradans to get third shot of COVID vaccine

Colorado plans to get all nursing home residents in the state a third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in the next three weeks, Gov. Jared Polis announced Tuesday — though federal health officials have yet to give a green light.

The governor also urged older Coloradans to get booster shots now by claiming they had an immune system condition that would qualify them under current rules for a third shot.

On Friday, a panel of vaccine experts advised the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to authorize third doses of the Pfizer vaccine for people who are 65 or older, are at a higher risk of serious illness, or work in settings where they’re more likely to be infected.

The FDA has yet to issue that authorization, however, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t yet decided whether to recommend boosters for older people. A decision could come later this week.

For now, the only people who are eligible for boosters are those who have compromised immune systems, and who received the Pfizer or Moderna shot. The FDA is expected to consider expanding who can have a third Moderna shot and whether a second Johnson & Johnson shot makes sense. There’s little data on whether it’s safe and effective to mix shots, so the recommendation is to stick with the brand you received first.

Polis said the state intends to move forward with boosters, and can do so without reducing its efforts to get first and second doses into arms. All nursing home residents received the Pfizer vaccine at least six months ago, making them eligible for a third shot, he said.

“We have enough doses now to move forward with our booster vaccination program,” he said. “We can walk and chew gum at the same time.”

In August, the CDC recommended third doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine for people who have a specific condition that limits their immune system’s ability to respond to vaccination.

At this point, the only Coloradans who are eligible are those who:

  • Had an organ transplant at any time, or a recent stem cell transplant
  • Were recently treated for cancer
  • Were born with a compromised immune system
  • Have uncontrolled HIV
  • Are being treated with high doses of immune-suppressing drugs
  • Have another condition that can affect the immune system, like chronic kidney disease

Vaccine providers aren’t allowed to ask for proof patients have a qualifying condition, though — patients simply have to fill out a form and check a box stating that they do.

Polis urged older Coloradans to interpret the idea of “weakened immune system” far more liberally than the CDC does, arguing any person in their 70s could on good conscience say their bodies’ defenses aren’t all they could be.

“By nature of this virus, people who are 70 and over have a weakened immune system,” he said.

Polis also stated that he knew some people who had gotten booster shots because they wanted extra protection before traveling, though the idea of giving booster shots to healthy people remains controversial. The standard doses remain highly effective in preventing severe illness and death in young and middle-aged people with healthy immune systems.

Proponents of expanding eligibility for boosters argue that it’s better to get ahead of the possibility of waning immunity, and that preventing people with mild infections from spreading the virus also has value. Opponents counter that booster shots will do little to reduce strain on hospitals, since most severe illness is in unvaccinated people, and that if the benefits are small enough, even a small risk of side effects may outweigh them.

As of late August, fully vaccinated people were 7.9 times less likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 in Colorado than people who haven’t completed their vaccine sequence, Dr. Rachel Herlihy said. There’s also a strong correlation between counties’ vaccination rates and how full their hospitals are, she said.

Statewide, cases and hospitalizations have leveled off over the last week, though it’s not clear if that will continue as the weather cools and activities move indoors, Herlihy said.

“Numbers want to go up or down. We rarely stay at a plateau for very long,” she said.

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