Easy access to COVID booster shots for immunocompromised in Marin County

With COVID booster shots looming for the general population, people who are immunosuppressed are enjoying a window of opportunity now.

"It will help me, I firmly believe that," said Bobby McMullen, 58.   

On Sunday, he received his third Pfizer dose.

"How excited am I? Through the roof," McMullen said at the Mill Valley home he shares wife Heidi and their daughter,  Ella, 7.  

McMullen, 58, is a two-time double transplant recipient, and has overcome many health challenges to succeed as an athlete and motivational speaker.

By age 30, he had lost his vision to Type 1 diabetes.

In 1997, McMullen had a kidney and pancreas transplant, which lasted about five years.

After a few years of dialysis, he received a second kidney and pancreas, which are still functioning well.

Over the decades, McMullen was also a Paralympian in ski racing and mountain biking.   

"It's a privilege to have a transplant and I want to protect it," he declares, explaining his desire to get a COVID booster at the earliest opportunity.

"I am so lucky to be a double-organ transplant, I am a living miracle of medicine," said McMullen, "and I would never do anything to screw that up, never!"

Friday, the Centers for Disease Control approved third doses of Pfizer and Moderna, for a relatively narrow group of people.

The list includes transplant recipients, active cancer patients, stem cell recipients, people with HIV, and those taking certain drugs that weaken immunity.

But sign-ups rely on an honor system.

"We do not have to write a prescription for this, patients can attest for themselves," said Dr. Steve Katznelson, a San Francisco nephrologist who has treated McMullen for many years. 

Katznelson is deluged with patients, asking about third shots and how to proceed.

"It's a bit of an insurance policy I think," said Katznelson," noting that his vaccinated transplant patients have a higher risk of contracting a breakthrough Covid case, and doing poorly once infected.

"This shot will not help everyone equally, but there is no down side," said Katznelson.

The McMullens were surprised at how swiftly they found access.

"I expected a line, I wasn't sure but this was a lot easier than the first time around," said Bobby, explaining how he landed a next-day slot at the CVS store in Marin City.

"As far as going in, we didn't have to show any proof of anything," said Heidi McMullen.

"Fast and not a whole lot of questions," said Bobby McMullen.

"Will people take advantage of that? Yeah that's human nature unfortunately."

Counties don't expect to open clinics dedicated to third shots, as long as drugstores and hospitals keep up with demand.

"This particular group of individuals has low to no antibody response to COVID," said Laine Hendricks, spokesperson for Marin County Public Health.

Hendricks notes diabetes and heart disease do not qualify under CDC guidelines, and neither does being elderly.

"So our message is do the right thing," said Hendricks.

"Allow those who fit in the definition to get their shot because they are at highest risk of disease and complications." 

Katznelson is realistic about people jumping ahead of the most vulnerable. 

"I think there are people who will try to game the system," he said.

"Luckily in the United States, there are plenty of shots to go around but using shots inappropriately is stealing an opportunity from somebody else."

McMullen likes to remind people that transplant recipients are rarely obvious, but they're everywhere.

It's why he is a fervent advocate for vaccination and masking.

"We're out there working next to you, having coffee with you and you don't even know it."

He takes about 14 medications twice daily, to suppress his immune system so his body won't reject his transplanted organs.

"With the third vaccination only time will tell," said McMullen, "but hopefully in a year they'll call to ask how I'm feeling and I'll say just like last time, I'm a rock star!"