Minnesotans seeking Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine booster shots might get them quicker at pharmacies than at large health care systems, state health officials said Friday.
Up to 1 million Minnesotans are expected to become eligible for the Pfizer booster once six months have passed since they received their second dose.
Under recommendations issued Thursday night by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Pfizer boosters are recommended for those 65 and older as well as those 50 to 64 who have underlying health conditions that put them at high risk for severe COVID-19 infection.
The health conditions include cancer, chronic kidney disease, obesity, diabetes, Down syndrome, heart conditions and liver disease, among others.
Additionally, those 18 to 49 with underlying health conditions and those who work in settings that may expose them to COVID-19 are eligible to get the vaccine.
However, the CDC did not list which occupations would qualify for the booster and instead said people should consult with their doctor.
"What the CDC is saying is there should be an individual assessment of who is at high risk," Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said. "There's not going to be this very detailed list of who is in and who is out."
Malcolm said pharmacies may be the quickest and most convenient option.
"Our health systems are rightly prioritizing patient care for COVID and urgent conditions and they are not in a position to stand up large vaccination clinics like they did earlier," she said.
CVS Health and Hy-Vee said they are offering Pfizer booster shots effective immediately. Both recommended scheduling appointments online.
HealthPartners said it would begin booster shots next week. It will reach out to eligible patients by e-mail, or those who qualify can contact the clinic. Shots also will be offered to health care workers who can provide job credentials.
The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson booster shots are still being studied, but a decision is expected over the next several weeks. Federal officials also are reviewing data about COVID-19 vaccine doses for children 5 to 11.
"We are still highly confident that we [have] got the infrastructure and vaccine supply to handle that," Malcolm said.
The state also will monitor vaccine distribution to determine whether more state-operated community vaccination sites will be needed.
Dr. Gregory Poland, a vaccinologist at Mayo Clinic, said the decision by CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky to include occupational exposure as a criteria for booster eligibility was "unusual" because the agency's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices voted to not include that group.
Still, Poland said he supports Walensky's controversial decision because it offers more protection to health care workers and others who could suffer while the nation awaits the evidence that supports boosters.
"Wouldn't it be safer to wait? … Absolutely safer, but safer in one respect," he said. "In the meantime, before we get there, there will be people who get infected and die.
"We are currently dealing with one of my own family members, doubly vaccinated, who had moderately severe COVID nonetheless and literally just made it. And people like that, if we don't boost them, I'm afraid we're going to lose them."
The CDC recommendations also help health care providers to give boosters to younger patients who are medically vulnerable. During the initial vaccine rollout in early 2021, many of them did not qualify initially for the vaccine because they were not health care workers, first responders or elderly.
"We had many patients at the beginning who had significant co-morbidities but were not eligible," said Dr. Kate Hust, an internal medicine physician at Hennepin Healthcare. "We certainly see patients at Hennepin who are very sick before the age of 64, and this helps patients make an informed decision."
The Pfizer vaccine accounts for 58% of all COVID-19 vaccine doses administered in Minnesota. About 55% of the 3.2 million state residents who have completed the vaccine series have received Pfizer doses.
State infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann said that up to 1 million Minnesotans fall within the Pfizer booster eligibility categories, although not all of them received the second dose more than six months ago.
She said the booster was designed to address waning immunity and could prevent more infections at a time of high transmission of the infectious delta variant.
Although two doses of Pfizer provide protection against severe illness, hospitalization and death, those with minor or asymptomatic infections can still spread the disease, but no one should feel obligated to get the booster exactly six months after the second shot.
"They don't have to look at this as a crisis that they have to get their booster tomorrow," Ehresmann said.
But many long-term care residents will not be getting boosters soon because the Moderna vaccine was used at most nursing homes and long-term care facilities.
"The Moderna data and the Johnson & Johnson data are in the process of being approved," Malcolm said. "We do expect that there will be recommendations about boosters probably for Moderna just within a few weeks."
Minnesota health officials reported 2,997 new COVID-19 infections and 27 deaths on Friday, bringing the pandemic totals to 697, 182 cases and 8,076 fatalities.
Among the deaths was a Hennepin County resident in the 25 to 29 age range.
A total of 752 Minnesotans were hospitalized with COVID-19 complications Thursday, including 213 in intensive care. That's a decline from 777 the previous day.
Staff writer Jeremy Olson contributed to this report.