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COVID vaccine boosters: Pharmacies are offering third shots — but only for some

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CVS, Hy-Vee, Jewel-Osco and Walgreens are among the big U.S. pharmacy chains that this week started offering third shots for people who already received their two COVID-19 vaccinations. But only people who are severely to moderately immunocompromised can get the additional shots so far, according to the companies.

The pharmacies said they are following the guidance of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which on Friday said that transplant recipients and others with severely weakened immune systems can get an extra dose of the Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. Under that guideline, about 10 million people in the U.S. may qualify for the additional shots now, with roughly 3% of Americans estimated to be immunocompromised.

That means most people will need to wait to get an additional shot amid a surge in COVID-19 cases linked to the highly contagious Delta variant. CVS and Walgreens say they are preparing to administer vaccine boosters to the wider public once they are approved by the the FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 1 in 4 people who have heard about booster shots are worried about waning vaccine protection, the Kaiser Family Foundation found in a recent survey.

On Wednesday, top health and medical experts from the Department of Health and Human Services said the booster shots may start the week of September 20 for people who received their second dose of Pfizer or Moderna vaccines eight months prior. 

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Here’s what to know about the additional shots so far. 

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What’s the difference between an additional shot and a booster shot? 

Not much, as the doses are the same, according to University of Chicago associate professor Emily Landon. 

The  only difference is terminology. A “booster” refers to an extra dose for people whose immune systems responded well to the initial vaccines but might face waning efficacy as time goes on. An “additional dose,” meanwhile, refers to the third shot given to people who are immunocompromised and whose immune systems might not have optimally responded to the first two doses, Landon explained. 

Who can get an additional shot right now?

Only people who are severely to moderately immunocompromised. 

According to the CDC, that includes people who are currently being treated for cancer; have received an organ transplant or are taking immune suppression medications; received a stem cell transplant in the last two years; have a severe primary immunodeficiency; have advanced or untreated HIV infections; or are taking high-dose corticosteroids or other drugs that suppress the immune system. 

How can I book a third shot?

Many of the pharmacies say eligible people can either book an appointment online or simply walk in for their third shot. 

A Walgreens spokesperson said that same-day appointments are available on a walk-in basis at some of its locations for eligible people. CVS is also offering walk-in appointments (which also may be scheduled online.) Hy-Vee said people can either walk in or schedule an appointment, while Jewel-Osco also is accepting either walk-ins or scheduled appointments.

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What do people need to bring? 

Pharmacies are recommending that people bring their COVID-19 vaccination record card, but you may also want to check whether your pharmacy requires additional documents. Hy-Vee, for instance, recommends that people bring their insurance or Medicare cards, as well as photo IDs. 

Do you need proof of being immunocompromised?

Pharmacies and state health departments say that people should be prepared to self-attest that they are immunocompromised, following federal guidelines. 

“According to the CDC, individuals will need to self-attest that they are severely to moderately immunocompromised but do not need to show proof of their condition,” Hy-Vee said in a statement.

What does it cost?

The third doses are free, either covered by insurance plans or through a federal program for the uninsured, according to the pharmacies.

What about people who aren’t immunocompromised?

The pharmacy chains say they aren’t offering booster shots to people who aren’t immunocompromised, but plan to be ready once federal regulators give the green light, which is expected in mid- to late-September. 

“We will continue to follow guidance from the FDA and CDC to administer vaccines to eligible populations and feel confident we have the pharmacy expertise, infrastructure and local community presence to accelerate access to these vaccinations,” Walgreens said in its statement.

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