A newly formulated COVID-19 booster shot will soon stock the refrigerator shelves of Louisiana’s pharmacies and doctors’ offices, replacing the former booster shot with the first updated formulation since vaccines first rolled out almost two years and many variants ago.

The new booster shot is known as a bivalent vaccine because it targets two strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus: the original strain of the coronavirus and the BA.4 and BA.5 strains of the omicron variant, which represents over 90% of the currently circulating virus, said Dr. Joseph Kanter, state health officer.

"I personally plan to get the updated booster and I recommend others who are eligible do so as well,” Kanter said in statement.

About 466 providers ordered 49,000 doses statewide. The first vaccines arrived in Louisiana late last week, and the remainder will arrive over this week and next, said Kanter. 

Everyone over 12 is eligible for a booster so long as they have had the initial series. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends waiting three months after a COVID infection to get the booster and at least two months since your last booster.

However, some infectious disease experts have suggested stretching the time between booster doses longer – between four and six months. The CDC says each person should take into consideration circumstances like personal risk of severe disease and transmission in your area. 

Already CVS and Walgreens have indicated the doses are arriving at stores. Both websites showed available appointments in Louisiana for the booster, but some CVS pharmacists said they did not have the updated vaccines on hand and suggested calling later in the week.

Area hospitals such as Ochsner Health, LCMC Health, Our Lady of the Lake in Baton Rouge and Baton Rouge General said they have not yet received the vaccine, but expect it in the next few days.

“We're not currently booking appointments … until we actually have the vaccine in hand,” said Dr. Sandra Kemmerly, Ochsner system medical director of hospital quality. “We’ve had a lot of interest.”

The two available booster vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna received emergency authorizations from federal authorities last week. The original vaccines will still be used for first-time vaccinations.

The new Pfizer booster dose is the same size as the original Pfizer vaccine at 30 micrograms, but 15 micrograms of the antigen target the original strain and 15 target the BA.4/BA.5 strain.

The Moderna bivalent booster is 50 micrograms, also the same size as the original Moderna booster, with the same 50% split between the strains.

The Pfizer vaccine is authorized for use in people 12 and older; the Moderna in people 18 and older.

Louisiana has a low vaccination rate of 54% compared to a 67% national average. Booster uptake has also been low, with just 23% of the population getting those shots. 

"We have our work cut out for us in terms of increasing access and promoting it," said Kanter. "It will be complicated because we’re co-promoting with the flu vaccine, and we’re due for an active flu season." 

COVID hospitalizations have been tracking downward over the last month, although 52 of 64 parishes are still considered COVID hot spots with over 100 cases per 100,000 people over the last two weeks.

There were 372 patients with COVID-19 hospitalized in Louisiana on Tuesday, a 20% drop from two weeks prior and a 37% drop from one month ago. But it’s not the same precipitous drop that has followed previous surges, suggesting the current levels may be sustained for the foreseeable future.

"I'm cautiously optimistic that if people get the bivalent vaccine and no other variant pops up overnight, hopefully we'll just have ongoing endemic activities of COVID-19 and we can continue to resume normal activities,” said Kemmerly.

Email Emily Woodruff at ewoodruff@theadvocate.com.