Immunocompromised COVID booster shot candidates weigh their options

People with weakened immune systems will now be able to get a third vaccine dose. A panel of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention signed off Friday, following Food and Drug Administration approval Thursday.

"An additional dose could help increase protection for these individuals," said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky. "It is especially important as the delta variant spreads."

About 3% of Americans have weakened immune systems for a variety of reasons.
Many have been waiting for this turning point.  

"You have to protect yourself any way you can," reacted Denis Stephan of Novato, who is fighting bone cancer.

He has been careful during nine months of chemotherapy, limiting visitors and outings. Even after he and his wife received the Moderna vaccine, Stephan knew he was at higher risk for a breakthrough case.  

"That's my biggest concern that COVID would have an easier time getting in and infiltrating my system," said Stephan. 

"Especially when he's on chemo," added wife Christina, "because that takes his immune system, his white cells down, the chemo."

In the initial phase, the CDC is recommending that moderately to severely immunocompromised people receive an additional dose.

This includes people who have been receiving active treatment for tumors or blood cancer, who have received an organ transplant and take anti-rejection medication, who have received a stem cell transplant within the last two years, have advanced or untreated HIV infection, and who take high-dose corticosteroids or other drugs that suppress immune response.

Friday, a transplant recipient in Baltimore was the first person in the U.S. to get a third shot.

The dose is simply another dose of Pfizer or Moderna, whichever vaccine the person got originally.

Like the first vaccine rollout, the candidate pool will likely widen with time.  

"That's interesting, if I would qualify, I'm not sure I do," said Beverly Winsor, playing Bocce Friday evening with other members of the Marin Bocce Federation.

Winsor had surgery and radiation for breast cancer last year. She remains on medication, but considers herself fully recovered.

Still, she called her doctor to ask about a booster.

"I reached out today and asked, 'Am I immunocompromised, having had breast cancer?"

She is inclined to see others who are more vulnerable go first.  "If I feel like they're sitting on it, and I am a candidate, then I'll push harder. But at this point, I'll wait and see."

For the Stephans, the dose feels a lot more urgent.

"We still want to travel, we have a lot on our plate and things to do so it's important that we stay healthy," said Christina.  

Denis's cancer was discovered during a routine physical when he complained of shoulder stiffness he thought was arthritis.

Soon, he will begin another round of chemotherapy and immunotherapy every three weeks.

But he is mostly pain-free and the couple makes the most of every day, enjoying their children and grandchildren.

"This booster shot, keeping him as safe as we can, we want on that list as fast as we can," said Christina.

"Anything that can help protect me from what goes around- besides the mask- I'll take it all," declared Denis.

Implementation of the booster guidelines may take a bit longer. '

Pharmacies are posting messages, explaining they are awaiting details before making appointments.

And California counties will likely look to the state for specific guidance before setting up clinics.

Conferring with health care providers for eligibility is the best first step.