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Northern Michigan supply levels vary for additional COVID-19 dose

A patient gets a bandage after receiving a vaccine for influenza. Vaccines for flu, COVID and RSV are all recommended this year, though supplies of the COVID shot have, so far, varied in northern Michigan. (Photo: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
A patient gets a bandage after receiving a vaccine for influenza. Vaccines for flu, COVID and RSV are all recommended this year, though supplies of the COVID shot have, so far, varied in northern Michigan. (Photo: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Pharmacies and health departments across the U.S., including some in northern Michigan, have started to distribute updated COVID-19 shots.

Two vaccines received approval from the federal Food and Drug Administration last month — one from Pfizer-BioNTech and one from Moderna.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended everyone 6 months of age and older get a vaccine to protect against illness.

“With the addition of COVID-19 to respiratory illness season during fall and winter, it is important to use tools to prevent getting sick and spreading illness, which includes getting safe and effective vaccines,” Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ chief medical executive, said.

She said vaccines for flu, COVID-19 and RSV are available at pharmacies and through primary care providers, and that they can be received during the same visit.

Nationally, there have been issues with distribution. Unlike prior years when the federal government subsidized the vaccines, this year the shot is commercialized, meaning pharmacies have to buy the vaccines from suppliers.

And, in northern Michigan, getting shipments of these vaccines has been difficult for some.

The Grand Traverse County Health Department has still not received any of the new shots, according to its website. Once they have them in stock, the agency said it will notify the community.

“The Grand Traverse County Health Department does not currently have the new COVID-19 vaccine due to supplier issues, but we should soon. When we have the vaccine and can offer appointments, we will have that information on our website and social media as we have seen a lot of interest from our community,” GTCHD Communicable Disease and Immunization Supervisor Jacalyn Money-Bruno said via email. “In the meantime, if people are wanting the updated COVID-19 vaccine, they can check with their local pharmacy or primary care physician.

“Most insurance plans will cover the cost of the vaccine, but there are programs offered at pharmacies and health departments to help cover the cost for those without insurance.”

But, for neighboring District 10 Health Department, which oversees Kalkaska, Crawford, Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Mason, Lake, Oceana, Newaygo and Mecosta counties, a search for these new shots hasn’t been an issue.

Bethanie Dean, immunization coordinator for District 10, said they ordered 1,000 Pfizer shots before the FDA approval went through. By that following Monday, she said, the shots were in their offices ready to be administered.

“I have heard from my different contacts across the state that there has been a little bit of backlog, but we have not experienced any,” Dean said. “We wanted to get our community protected, so we went ahead and placed a pre-book so, as soon as it was approved, it started shipping to us.”

Since the new shot was getting approved nationally, Dean said their offices decided to order shots in advance to avoid any shipping or backlog issues. “People were very surprised when they would come to our flu clinics to hear that we had COVID vaccines and that we were ready to start giving them,” she said.

So far, they haven’t run out of the new COVID-19 doses at any of their clinics across their 10-county region. And, Dean said, they’ve seen a pretty “good demand” of people coming to their clinics to get vaccinated.

All of the different brands of shots are interchangeable, Dean said, so to be eligible for the vaccine, people just need to be over 6 months old and it’s been at least two months since their last COVID-19 shot.

The situation is different further north in counties like Emmet, Charlevoix, Otsego and Antrim.

Dan Thorell, health officer for the Health Department of Northwest Michigan, said the new shot distribution has been a “slow start,” but his office has just begun to receive shipments of the vaccines.

“If you’re in a populous area, like Traverse City or Petoskey, it’s pretty easy to access [a vaccine] with bigger pharmacies and whatnot,” Thorell said. “But if you live in the rural countryside — which Northern Michigan is 70% rural — there’s a barrier.”

Thorell said doses are being given out on a first-come, first-serve basis. Residents can call the Health Department of Northwest Michigan to set up an appointment.

“The people that are really seeking it out right now are the ones are the most vulnerable and in need,” Thorell said. “We expect that to improve in the coming weeks as we get more shipments in.”

The Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department just received its first shipment of 400 Moderna doses on Oct. 10, and have placed an order for 300 more.

According to Autumn Jurek, immunization coordinator and personal health supervisor, they too have struggled to get shipments of the new COVID-19 vaccine dose.

“We had ordered it about two weeks before and we just weren’t really sure,” she said. “It was difficult for us to set up an account with Moderna to get the vaccine in the first place — and then we ended up not being able to order from Moderna, but having to order from a different distributor to get it.”

Jurek said, based on past experience with other shots and boosters, it seems like there’s always a bit of a hitch in the beginning after the shot gets approved before distribution evens out over time.

Running at approximately $190 a dose, she said, it’s an expensive vaccine.

“We don’t want to order more than we can give, and it’s hard to know what the interest level is going to be, and for how long people are going to be looking for it still,” she said. “For a small health department, we’re trying to balance the needs of the population with not wanting to waste.”

In her district, the demand for the new updated dose has been pretty high thus far. During their first week of appointments, she said they administered 150 doses.

“Our phones were ringing off the hook after Sept. 12 when it was approved — and even before that,” Jurek said.

Health insurance is not required to receive the new dose, according to Dean, and, thanks to state and federal funded programs, there’s no copay either.

In the past, there has been pushback about whether to get vaccinated against COVID-19. But, Dean said, with this new shot, she hasn’t heard any complaints.

“I also feel like the people who are coming to our clinics now are people who want it,” she said. “Before, there was a lot of discussion on mandate[s] and different organizations where it was going to be required, but I feel like a lot of that slimmed down.”

A common misconception about this new shot is that it’s a COVID-19 vaccine booster. But, Jurek said, it’s actually an additional vaccine dose.

In a Sept. 11 press release, the FDA said the new shots are formulated to closely target currently circulating variants — including Omicron variant XBB.1.5. Thorell said that’s “probably the most important reason” to get the new shot.

“If you’ve been vaccinated for COVID all along, you’re still protected,” Thorell said, “but not as well as you will be after receiving the latest COVID vaccine.”

Michael Livingston covers the area around the Straits of Mackinac - including Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties as a Report for America corps member.