Second boosters available as BA.2 omicron variant spreads

a person administers a vaccine to another person
COVID-19 vaccines are administered at the Anchorage School District Education Center on Jan. 7, 2021. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Second COVID-19 booster shots are now available for some Alaskans.

People over age 50 and immunocompromised people can receive a second booster four months after their first booster. Pfizer and Moderna boosters are available for those who received a Johnson & Johnson first dose or booster.

Meanwhile, case numbers continue to level off in Alaska and around the country. At a public health presentation Wednesday, state health officials said getting vaccinated and boosted is still important. 

“During this recent surge, those who were boosted were 21 times less likely to die from COVID compared to those who were unvaccinated, and seven times less likely to be hospitalized,” said state epidemiologist Dr. Lisa Rabinowitz.

Statewide, 59.6% of Alaskans are fully vaccinated. Local rates range from 79.6% in the Juneau region to 42% in the Matanuska-Susitna region. In an interview Thursday, Rabinowitz said the state has an adequate supply of vaccines and boosters for both adults and children.

The new booster authorization comes as BA.2, a subvariant of omicron, spreads throughout the country. BA.2 makes up 54.9% of cases nationally and 44.57% in Alaska.

“We’re quickly approaching that 50% mark,” said state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin.

BA.2 seems to be more transmissible but not more virulent than BA.1, meaning it spreads more easily but doesn’t cause more severe illness, McLaughlin said. Vaccines are also as effective against BA.2 as they are against BA.1, officials said.

But BA.2 is affecting treatment options. Sotrovimab, a type of monoclonal antibody treatment, is not effective against BA.2. On Friday, the FDA announced that it no longer authorized its use in certain regions including Alaska.

Other monoclonal antibody and antiviral treatments are still available, but it’s important to ask a healthcare provider about them quickly, officials said. That’s because patients need to start taking them within five to seven days after testing positive or experiencing symptoms in order for them to be effective.

“These drugs, all of them have to be given early — we’re hearing a lot of reports from providers and patients that they waited too long,” state pharmacist Dr. Coleman Cutchins said. “As soon as you have any symptom that possibly could be COVID, go out and get tested. And as soon as you test positive or start symptoms, reach out to your medical provider.”

Rabinowitz said Alaska’s supply levels for monoclonal antibody and antiviral treatments are also stable.

State health officials also highlighted a new addition to the state’s COVID dashboard that provides case rate levels by community. The CDC’s community measurement tool divides the state into just four areas, but the state health department’s tool will include individual boroughs and census areas.

Dr. Eric Mooring, a CDC epidemiologist, said he hoped it would be useful for communities making decisions about masking requirements and other mitigation measures.

“This, in part, captures the wide variety of levels of transmission that we’ve seen in different communities and across the course of the pandemic,” he said. “I think it might be especially useful for more rural boroughs and census areas.”

The state health department will update all COVID-19 dashboards weekly on Wednesdays, rather than daily, starting April 6. Biweekly public health presentations will continue through May 25, and then pause until September, when they’ll be held monthly.

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