New COVID boosters could be in Roaring Fork Valley next week

A tester prepares to administer a swab test at a drive-in COVID-19 testing site on Oct. 27, 2020, in Federal Heights.
David Zalubowski/AP

The new COVID-19 booster shots may arrive in the Roaring Fork Valley as early as next week.

National news organizations are reporting the U.S. Food and Drug Administration may approve the new COVID boosters as early as this weekend. The next step is for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue recommendations on who most urgently needs the shots. The CDC scheduled a Tuesday morning meeting for its immunization practices committee, which votes on those guidelines.

Pitkin County Public Health Epidemiologist Carly Senst has heard the same hopeful news from sources.

She told The Aspen Times that she sees Pitkin County being well-positioned for the oncoming cold weather and the respiratory problems that often ensue.

“We have actually seen a plateau and an ever so slight decrease in (COVID) cases through the last 30 days,” she said. “We have seen an increase compared to a very quiet beginning of summer, but nothing too alarming.”

But here’s the problem: Those stats are less reliable now that the pandemic is no longer officially an emergency.

“I will say that case counts are fairly unreliable nowadays with the reduction in community testing resources; so while we haven’t seen a large increase in cases, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t COVID-19 activity,” she said. “We also saw a very slight increase in COVID-19 wastewater data, but again, compared to prior seasons, this is a marginal increase.”

There was an increase in COVID hospitalizations recently, but the patients were mostly residents of outside counties who were visiting Pitkin, Senst said, adding those hospitalized were from high-risk groups.

She sees Aspen and Pitkin County as well-prepared for winter’s many respiratory challenges.

The latest COVID shots that will soon be available to the public target the XBB.1.5 omicron subvariant, a strain no longer dominant. But the FDA website details the science behind how the boosters protect those who get the shots against other subvariants.

It’s important to note that for most, these new vaccines won’t be free. Senst said many insurance providers will cover the cost. There are government programs that will cover costs for the uninsured.

The federal COVID national Public Health Emergency officially ended May 11. In the early days of the pandemic, travel blogs and news media recounted stories of Americans trapped overseas when countries closed their borders to prevent COVID’s spread. Senst points out that the CDC no longer requires quarantining. She names examples of recent COVID quarantines, all among folks already confined to one location, not travelers: jail inmates and hospital patients.

Dr. J. Stevens Ayers oversees Aspen Valley Hospital’s emergency care and often worked double shifts during the pandemic. With his additional forensic medicine expertise, he also serves as Pitkin County’s coroner. He remembers a recent conversation with a film producer visiting Aspen who wanted him to write a doctor’s note saying it was healthy for her to board a plane and fly. He disagreed that her travel plans were healthy. He remembers her becoming frustrated with him when she said, “I know all about COVID,” explaining that her job was to help keep movie sets COVID-free.

Did he write that note for her?

“No,” Ayers replied. “But that doesn’t mean she didn’t go ahead and get on a plane.”

The CDC will offer the public a chance to weigh in on how the new shots should be used. To watch the Sept. 12 meeting from 10 a.m.-4 p.m., EDT, go to​vaccines/​acip/​index.htm. The date and time may change, so visit the CDC site for updates.