Marvin Reed, a third-grade teacher at Thousand Oaks Elementary, poses in front of a mural outside of the school after getting the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. March 10, 2021.
Marvin Reed, a third-grade teacher at Thousand Oaks Elementary, poses in front of a mural outside of the school after getting his second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in March. File photo: Kelly Sullivan Credit: Kelly Sullivan

The city of Berkeley started giving third doses of the COVID-19 vaccine last week, and people with compromised immune systems are first in line.

With new vaccine news popping up almost daily — FDA approvals, booster recommendations, different guidelines for different vaccines — it’s easy to get confused. Each new rumor is ripe for the taking. So where do things stand with vaccine boosters, also known as third doses?

Many health providers, including the city’s health department, have started giving COVID-19 booster shots to those who received an mRNA vaccine, Pfizer or Moderna. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is still reviewing data for a recommendation on the one-dose Johnson & Johnson Janssen boosters.

As of now, boosters, or third vaccine doses, are only for people with compromised immune systems, said Lisa Warhuus, the city’s health director, as per the guidelines of the CDC.

Some medical conditions and medications leave people with weakened or less effective immune systems. The CDC recommends COVID-19 boosters for people who are moderately to severely immunocompromised including:

  • People in treatment for blood cancer or tumors
  • Organ transplant patients on medicine to suppress the immune system
  • People who’ve received a stem cell transplant in the past two years
  • People with a primary immunodeficiency condition, such as DiGeorge syndrome or Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome
  • People with advanced or untreated HIV infection
  • People undergoing treatment with high-dose corticosteroids or other drugs that suppress immune function

This recommendation applies to any clinic in the U.S. giving COVID-19 vaccines, including retail sites partnering with the CDC’s Federal Retail Pharmacy Program. This would include many Walgreens and CVS pharmacies in Berkeley.

(The California Department of Public Health is now referring to the third COVID-19 vaccine for people who are immunocompromised as a “third dose” and not a booster. The term “booster” will be used for people outside of this category who will subsequently need a booster to increase efficacy of their current vaccination status,” Warhuus said.)

Plenty of vaccine — at the moment

Unlike the early days of COVID-19 vaccination, when the vaccine was scarce, which lead to long waits for appointments, most medical providers in Berkeley currently have ample supplies, Warhuus said.

She urged people to get a third dose or booster through their main medical provider, such as Kaiser or Sutter Health. But anyone who can’t do this, or who doesn’t have medical coverage, can get a booster through the city health department.

“We encourage residents to talk to their health care provider about their medical condition, whether an additional dose is appropriate for them, and how that additional dose should be incorporated with other treatments they may be receiving,” Warhuus said. “In circumstances where this is not feasible, city-sponsored clinics will begin to administer additional doses to people who attest to having moderately to severely compromised immune systems.”

Boosters for the general public

So when will boosters be available to the general public? The city health department is following the recommendations of the state, which hasn’t yet set vaccine guidelines for those without immune system conditions. This is expected soon, however.

“We are prepared to offer booster shots for all Americans beginning the week of September 20 and starting 8 months after an individual’s second dose,” the CDC said in a statement on Aug. 18.

“Based on our latest assessment, 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,” the CDC statement said. “For that reason, we conclude that a booster shot will be needed to maximize vaccine-induced protection and prolong its durability.”

Most people got vaccinated between February and and June of this year. That means demand for boosters should start in October, following the eight-months-after-second-dose guideline.

Berkeleyside asked Warhuus more questions about booster shots.

Is Berkeley planning to offer general boosters to those who can’t get them from a regular medical provider (for whatever reason)?

That is our intention – though we will also encourage that individuals seek them from their health care providers when possible.

Q. Will these be given eight months from someone’s last vaccine?

A. We will be following CDPH guidance when it comes out. We expect that this will likely align with official CDC guidance – which for now looks like it will be eight months from someone’s last [second] vaccine dose.

Q. When will you start making appointments; is it likely the booster will be offered at the same sites as initial vaccines?

A. Likely not. Vaccines are widely available now as opposed to last winter when we first initiated vaccinations and there was extreme scarcity. The City will provide vaccination, as will healthcare providers, pharmacies, and within other local jurisdictions such as Alameda County.

Q. Will you prioritize older people or frontline workers for these boosters?

A. We will prioritize older individuals and frontline workers if they are prioritized by CDC/CDPH otherwise we will consider prioritization if demand exceeds supply.

Q. Can you please address rumors that anyone can go to a pharmacy in Berkeley now and get a booster?

A. There are several vaccine providers in the City of Berkeley. We do not operate pharmacies in Berkeley. At City sites, anyone eligible for a booster must attest to having one of the immunocompromised conditions specifically listed in the press release.

Q. Does the city health department have any jurisdiction over local pharmacies that offer vaccines under the federal program?

A. No. We are grateful for the work of local pharmacies as we all work together to make vaccines available to the public.

Q. Is there any medical risk in someone getting a booster before the eight month (from their second dose)?

A. We cannot comment on medical risks of individuals. We strongly recommend that people get vaccinated and that the public follows our guidance, which is closely aligned with CDPH and CDC guidance, on when to get vaccinated.

To learn more about how to get a COVID-19 vaccine in Berkeley (first, second or third dose) check the health department’s vaccine website.

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Freelancer Catherine "Kate" Rauch has been contributing to Berkeleyside for several years. Her work as a journalist has encompassed everything from 10 years as a daily news reporter for the East Bay Times,...