The Department of Veterans Affairs is encouraging patients and employees to get their COVID-19 boosters to protect against variants that may cause severe illness, especially in vulnerable veterans.
Dr. Shereef Elnahal, the under secretary of veterans affairs for health, said Monday the VA is expected to be among the first federal agencies to get the new COVID-19 booster shot, made by Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech, likely by the end of the week.
The immunization, approved earlier this month by the Food and Drug Administration and recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for those six months or older, targets several variants, including the highly transmissible XBB.1.5 type of the virus, nicknamed the Kraken because it’s easier to remember than a jumble of letters and numbers.
"The updated 2023-2024 vaccine ... tested pretty effectively against most of the variants that are out there right now," Elnahal said in a press call with reporters Monday. "We're confident and hopeful this will add an extra layer of protection, especially to our most vulnerable veterans."
The department will begin offering the vaccine at medical centers across the country shortly after it begins receiving doses. According to Elnahal, the vaccine will be available alongside the flu vaccine at immunization clinics and, at some medical centers, in locations near front entrances.
Unlike previous COVID-19 immunization campaigns, VA will not provide the vaccine to caregivers or family members of veterans. Elnahal explained that as a result of the end of the public health emergency in May, VA only can offer the booster to those eligible for care as well as VA employees.
As of Sept. 17, VA has been treating 5,460 cases of COVID-19 in veterans, employees and others in VA care, up nearly 12% since a month ago. In the last month alone, 120 VA patients have died from the disease, bringing the total number of deaths at VA from COVID-19 to 24,993 since the pandemic began.
VA has vaccinated more than 5 million individuals, including 4.5 million veterans and 321,000 VA employees since the immunizations were first approved in August 2021. Roughly 2.5 million veterans have received at least one booster.
"We strongly recommend that veterans get the vaccine. It's a vaccine that has proven over and over again to be safe and effective. It protects against severe outcomes and death very significantly," Elnahal said.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com