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WNC gets better COVID-19 boosters and more shots against monkey pox

The word of the week in Western North Carolina is - vaccine.

During Tuesday’s briefing with Buncombe County commissioners, Health Director Stacie Saunders said the county, along with a number of local pharmacies and other providers across the region are now offering the updated COVID-19 booster vaccine. This follows the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) authorization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) announcement that people 12 and older can receive an updated booster to protect against the latest COVID-19 variants.

“The updated boosters provide better protection against the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants that currently are causing most cases of COVID-19 ,” Saunders told commissioners. “The boosters are recommended for those who have completed their primary series or initial booster at least two months ago.”

Pfizer's updated booster is recommended for people 12 years and older and Moderna for for those who are 18 years and older.

According to a press release from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, the updated booster is referred to as a bivalent vaccine as it targets both the original coronavirus strain and the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants. It relies on safety and efficacy data from initial clinical trials, studies of bivalent boosters, and extensive safety and effectiveness monitoring. This process is similar to the one used to create the annual flu vaccine, which targets new strains each year.

Saunders told lawmakers that over the past several weeks, Western North Carolina has seen a steady decline in COVID cases. She was quick to add that levels are still not at the low baseline goal set by health officials at the beginning of the pandemic and urged residents not to become complacent.

“I want everyone to be prepared now and in the future, for COVID-19 waves,” she said. “Stay up to date on your vaccine, get tested and have at home test kits available. Don't throw away your mask, but keep some handy for times when cases are much higher - and know where you can receive treatment, if eligible.”

Saunders also shared news about the monkey pox vaccine, noting that state has expanded eligibility, based on case data and current spread to protect more people in higher-risk categories.

" Effective vaccine is now available for those who are at close contact to a known or suspected case and others who meet criteria,” said Saunders.
“Anyone can get monkey pox. At this point, the data is telling us that gay, bisexual men - along with other men who have sex with men, friends and family are disproportionally impacted right now and have higher risk. “  According to a NCDHHS press release, the vaccine will be available for people who meet any of the following criteria:

  • Anyone who had close contact in the past two weeks with someone who has been diagnosed with monkeypox; or 
  • Gay, bisexual, or other men who have sex with men, or transgender individuals, who are sexually active; or  
  • People who have had sexual contact with gay, bisexual, or other men who have sex with men, or transgender individuals in the past 90 days; or 
  • People living with HIV, or taking medication to prevent HIV (PrEP), or who were diagnosed with syphilis in the past 90 days. 

As of Wednesday, North Carolina is reporting just under 400 monkey pox cases. Saunders says Buncombe County has confirmed six cases so far.

Helen Chickering is a host and reporter on Blue Ridge Public Radio. She joined the station in November 2014.