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County COVID cases reach highest levels yet as FDA authorizes additional boosters

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LAKE COUNTY — Lake County Public Health Director Emily Colomeda presented some startling numbers during the health board’s monthly meeting Oct. 19. As of that date, COVID-19 had claimed 66 lives since the beginning of the pandemic, and of those, 28 have died since July 1. 

This was grim news following a week in which more Montanans were hospitalized with the virus than at any other time during the pandemic. A recent report from the Department of Health and Human Services also shows that from Feb. 7 to Sept. 4, 88.6% of those hospitalized for COVID-19 were not fully vaccinated, and 83.5% of COVID-associated deaths were among those not fully vaccinated. 

A day after the meeting, on Oct. 20, The New York Times was reporting that Lake County had the fourth highest number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents in the nation. According to the publication’s online COVID case tracker, October has been the worst month for the pandemic so far in the county, with a seven-day average of 36 cases a day Oct. 20, compared to a previous high of 22 cases per day last December. 

During last Tuesday’s meeting, Colomeda reported 24 people were hospitalized with the virus, 325 were infected and Lake County had tallied 4,291 cases of COVID-19 since the virus began. 

On a more positive note, she noted that the DPHHS vaccine map shows the county’s vaccine rate currently sits at 60% of the eligible population. Of those, 100 percent of people 80 and older and 40% of those 12-17 have received at least one dose. 

The latter statistic “is really exciting to us since we’ve had some outbreaks in schools lately,” she told the health board. “Unfortunately not all of the young kids in school can get a vaccine just yet but that’s coming soon.”

An authorization request from Pfizer is pending with the Food and Drug Administration and officials are slated to consider the matter next week and deliver a determination next month. The drug manufacturer says trials show a smaller, pediatric dose of its COVID-19 vaccine is safe and generates a “robust” antibody response in children ages 5 to 11. 

If the FDA approves the vaccine, the Biden administration recently announced that it has secured enough vaccine to administer the recommended pediatric dose to 28 million children ages 5 to 11. The administration plans to use Federal Emergency Management Agency funding to make the vaccine available at schools and other community sites across the nation.

During the meeting, Colomeda and other public health officials said questions are swirling about COVID-19 booster shots. These have been available for Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine recipients who completed their initial series at least six months ago and are 65 years and older. Those 18 and older are also eligible if they have underlying medical conditions or work or live in high-risk settings. 

On Wednesday, a day after the meeting, the FDA took action to expand emergency use authorizations for booster shots of Moderna and Johnson and Johnson in eligible populations. On Thursday the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices unanimously echoed the recommendation, clearing the way to make booster shots of the other two vaccines available in the U.S. 

As of Friday, a single booster dose of Moderna may be administered to the same group as the Pfizer vaccine at least six months after completing the first series; the recommended booster dose is half of the primary dose.

A single booster dose of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine may be administered at least two months after completion of the first dose to those 18 and older. 

On Wednesday, the FDA also cleared the way to “mix and match” vaccines for the booster dose, as long as the primary series has been completed; the CDC green lighted that recommendation. This means eligible individuals may now choose which vaccine they receive as a booster dose. 

Dr. Megan Vigil, the county medical officer, noted that her employer, St. Luke Community Healthcare, is receiving “a lot of questions about boosters and we’re happy to take them.” She noted that the facility’s website and Facebook page offer current information, as do those of other healthcare providers, including Providence St. Joseph Medical Center and Tribal Health. 

In response to a member of the audience, who was concerned that “mixing and matching is not a smart thing to do,” Colomeda pointed out that the Health Department’s vaccine guidance comes directly from the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.

“We don’t give any vaccine, no matter what it is, until those recommendations are published,” she said. “That’s our guidance as vaccine providers.”

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