Older Minnesotans who have been cleared for COVID-19 booster shots are feeling relief and rushing to pharmacies in hopes of beating back the pandemic's resurgent threat.
Nursing home residents want to avoid last year's restrictive policies for stopping the spread that left them confined to their rooms.
Those who've watched friends and family suffer breakthrough infections after being immunized have concerns over waning protection from their vaccines. Others are focused on maintaining safe connections with grandchildren and the degree of normalcy they've found with immunizations.
Yet for now, the relief is confined to those who were immunized with vaccine made by Pfizer, since regulators have not cleared boosters for those who received COVID-19 vaccines from manufacturers Moderna or Johnson & Johnson.
"I think there's going to be some frustration until they make some decisions [about the other vaccines]," said Laura Schwartzwald, owner of GuidePoint Pharmacy in Brainerd.
"I'm pretty sure that several people are going to be quite relieved and others are going to be a little bit anxious," she said. "I'm hopeful that we're going to get some guidance on ... third doses for Moderna and second doses for Johnson & Johnson because some of the data is coming in."
Federal health officials last week said boosters for the Pfizer vaccine should be offered to people 65 and older, long-term care residents and those ages 50 to 64 with certain underlying health problems. The additional dose would be given once patients are at least six months past their second Pfizer shot.
People ages 18 to 49 with health conditions that increase their COVID-19 risk may also receive boosters, depending on their individual risks and benefits, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Thursday. The CDC said adults under age 65 at greater risk for COVID-19 exposure and transmission due to their occupation or workplace setting may be offered the Pfizer booster, as well.
In Minnesota, about 55% of fully vaccinated residents have received Pfizer shots, state officials said Friday, including about 1 million people who likely meet criteria for boosters. Not all of those residents are six months out from their second shots, so they're not yet eligible.
Booster not urgent
People who qualify now, however, shouldn't feel they must rush to get their shots, Kris Ehresmann, the state's director for infectious diseases, told reporters on Friday.
"While this guidance means that people are eligible to receive the booster dose at this point, they don't have to look at it as a crisis — that they have to get their booster tomorrow or it's a problem," she said.
"They can look at taking advantage of the large health system and the large number of providers that we have and getting that booster when it's convenient for them, but … they don't have to take it as a crisis."
Early this year, Rose Marie Holland, 83, received a vaccine made by Moderna like most long-term care residents in Minnesota, so she must wait for a booster shot. Holland, who lives at Good Samaritan Society-Ambassador in New Hope, says she's anxious for the next dose in order to stay healthy.
For months last year, nursing homes in Minnesota were locked down to prevent the virus that causes COVID-19 from spreading. Family and friends weren't allowed to visit from outside the facility, Holland recalled, while residents inside couldn't leave their rooms to visit one another.
With the COVID-19 vaccines, residents are playing bingo again and meeting for crafts, and they hope to resume group trips to a nearby restaurant or the dollar store.
Nursing home staff say the facility hasn't seen a single COVID-19 case in a resident during 2021, and they believe that boosters should help the streak continue.
"I want to stay safe. I want my family throughout our building here — this is my home — to be safe also," Holland said. "I want to be able to come out of my room and do the things that we normally do."
Sherry Olmscheid is a big believer in vaccines, so there never was any doubt the 68-year-old Burnsville resident would get a COVID-19 booster if it was recommended by health officials.
"I believe in the science," Olmscheid said.
Even so, the importance of the extra dose became clearer this summer, she said, when her son, his wife and their two children were infected with the virus that causes COVID-19. Three of the four were old enough for vaccines and had been immunized.
Olmscheid's granddaughter, who is 12, experienced mild symptoms — sniffles, a slight headache and a sore throat. But her son was so fatigued he would sleep for hours at a time while her daughter-in-law suffered a headache so severe that she felt like her brain was on fire.
"I was very shocked that the whole family ended up testing positive," Olmscheid said. "We keep hearing more about breakthrough cases and I think that's going to continue."
Few breakthrough cases
Breakthrough infections occur in only a very small percentage of all people who've been fully immunized, yet their numbers are growing and occasionally result in hospitalizations. In just a few cases, breakthrough infections have resulted in death, although state officials say those patients tend to be older and suffer from other health problems.
Greg Hestness, 68, of Minneapolis didn't waste any time last week getting his Pfizer booster shot — his daughter lined up an appointment for Saturday morning in advance of the CDC decision, just in case.
Hestness' daughter and son-in-law are physicians who are raising four kids from the ages of 3 to 12. Grandma and grandpa play crucial roles in helping care for the children, including shuttling them to and from school, child care and activities. But the pandemic disrupted those routines.
Since being immunized early this year, Hestness said he's been happy to once again be busy with his grandchildren. Getting a booster shot as soon as possible is key, he said, since three of the kids aren't old enough to be vaccinated.
If he came down with a breakthrough infection and passed it to the grandchildren, there's a very small chance they might get sick, Hestness said.
Even if they didn't develop symptoms, the children would still need to be quarantined, which would seriously disrupt the family routine and the doctors' work treating patients.
"We want to do everything we can do to not pass it on to the grandchildren," Hestness said.
Pharmacists on Friday reported many calls from patients seeking clarification on whether they could now get their boosters.
Questions about the shots were building all last week at Minneapolis Vaccine Hunters, a Facebook group that was a clearinghouse for information on immunizations during the vaccine rush earlier this year.
Winnie Williams, one of the group's moderators, said she heard from a few people Friday morning who said they'd already received boosters. Many others were seeking help with finding appointments or figuring out if they qualified.
And in a few cases, some were voicing frustration that boosters aren't available from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, Williams said.
That was especially troubling, she added, to those who didn't have the opportunity to choose their vaccine — they simply received what their vaccine provider happened to have in stock on a given day.
"I do anticipate," Williams said, "that we will hear more from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson recipients who are concerned about the lack of a booster available to them."