New, more infectious coronavirus mutations are spreading across Florida, and some who will seek new vaccinations to protect against the latest viral versions will have to start paying soon.
The federal government has said that by the end of the year it will run out of money to buy COVID-19 vaccines, meaning they will no longer be free to all recipients starting in January.
The latest shots from Moderna and Pfizer, federally approved in late August, are better built to fight offshoots of the virus’ omicron variant. The original omicron and its subvariants have accounted for virtually all COVID infections this year so far.
Those vaccines target the BA.5 omicron subvariant. While BA.5 has waned over the summer, it resembles the latest crop of viral mutations, potentially giving recipients of the latest vaccines stronger immunity compared with those who have gotten the original vaccines, which were designed for the original coronavirus first found in Wuhan, China.
The U.S. has bought 171 million doses of the latest vaccines. More than 19.4 million people have gotten those boosters. Once supplies run out, many shot-seekers will have to pay for immunization.
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BA.5 offshoots — BF.7, BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 — have gained ground in Florida since August when it was first detected in a COVID test collected by the worldwide GISAID initiative, a group dedicated to rapidly sharing COVID data.
And in Singapore, another omicron subvariant, XBB, has caused the Asian city-state’s COVID caseload to double since Oct. 1. That mutation has been found in 45 tests across the United States, though none yet in Florida.
Caseload still on downward path while virals increase a little in sewage
Meanwhile, Florida’s COVID case counts and hospitalizations are continuing their downward slide, as viral levels increase slightly in sewage in some parts of the state, according to new data released Friday.
The state’s COVID case count grew an average of 10,028 cases each week since the state Health Department’s last biweekly report Oct. 7. That’s the lowest since April 8. More than 7.1 million people across the state have been infected by the disease.
Hospitals statewide tended to 1,152 COVID-positive patients Friday, the fewest since May 9. Florida’s COVID death toll grew by an average of 258 people each week since Oct. 7, the lowest since June 17.
More than 16 million Florida residents have gotten at least one shot of the COVID vaccines, including more than 6 million with boosters. Those numbers have barely changed since summer.
Still, vaccine immunity has been waning. Previous studies have shown protection starts to fade after several months. Yet even as these infectious mutations spread, Congress has not provided money to cover the costs of COVID vaccines, as the Biden Administration has requested.
Senate killed $10 billion in COVID money
In April, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida joined his 49 Republican colleagues in the Senate to block a bill that would have allocated $10 billion for the federal government to continue buying COVID vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer, thereby covering the out-of-pocket costs for shot-seekers.
Senate Republicans blocked the effort that would have kept vaccines free after Democrats would not include a provision that would have prevented President Biden from winding down a pre-vaccine Trump-era restriction that authorizes U.S. border officials to swiftly expel immigrants to prevent the spread of the respiratory illness.
Rubio’s Democratic opponent in the Nov. 8 election, Val Demings, voted for the measure in the House. Florida’s other Republican senator, Rick Scott, is not running for re-election this year.
If federal funding for vaccines ends in January, along with the federal government’s COVID public health emergency declaration, millions of Americans could find themselves having to pay for the previously free shots.
“The uninsured will not really have a mechanism to get the vaccine,” said Jennifer Kates, director of Global Health and HIV Policy at the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation, which focuses on health-care policy.
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Americans in Medicare, Medicaid would still get shots for free
The U.S. Health and Human Services Department estimates that 8% of Americans lack health insurance.
The vaccine would still be free for Americans enrolled in Medicare and Medicaid, the foundation says, as would some uninsured children under the CDC’s Vaccine for Children Program.
But some people with private insurance would have to pay. And thanks to the Affordable Care Act, most private insurance plans must cover vaccines approved by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
However, Kates points out, private insurance premiums could rise due to a lapse in federal funding and the end of the emergency declaration.
The federal government negotiated with Pfizer this past summer to buy its shots for more than $30 a dose. But once that money runs out and the government bows out as its sole customer for the vaccines in America, Pfizer plans to sell the vaccines for $110 to $130 a shot.
“Paying for something that’s going to have potential benefit in the future is a hard sell,” Kates said about political resistance to extending federal spending on COVID vaccines.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has badmouthed COVID vaccines for nearly a year while his state surgeon general has recommended against large swaths of Florida’s population getting the scientifically proven shots.
“The surgeon general of Florida does not recommend this for young kids under 18, and basically his reason for that is there has not really been a proven benefit for that,” DeSantis said Thursday during a news conference.
Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo has recommended against vaccinating children and men younger than 40. Medical experts have pointed out that the analysis he cited for his advice does not support his conclusion that the shots cause fatal heart problems in men ages 18 to 39.
Chris Persaud is The Palm Beach Post’s data reporter. Email him at email@example.com.