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Doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech booster vaccine are seen at the Gimbel Gymnasium at the Pottruck Health and Fitness center on Dec. 15, 2021. Credit: Kylie Cooper

Earlier this month, newly formulated COVID-19 vaccines were approved and recommended for all individuals older than six months.

On Sept. 11, the United States Food and Drug Administration approved the updated shots, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention later voted to recommend the vaccine. The new boosters — currently only produced by Pfizer and Moderna, with a third option from Novavax currently under development — are designed to target the Omicron variant XBB.1.5., the current dominant strain of the virus, as well as similar strains. 

Unlike earlier in the pandemic, these vaccines will be delivered through the commercial market. While the government formerly purchased and supplied vaccines, they ceased to cover vaccines’ costs following the removal of the federal COVID-19 public health emergency.

The updated COVID-19 vaccines will remain free for Americans with insurance through in-network providers, including students on the Penn Student Insurance Plan.

The approval of the new shots follows a recent spike in COVID-19 cases, both at Penn and across the United States. CDC data also showed a nationwide increase in hospital admissions attributed to COVID-19 earlier in September, although the increase has now plateaued.

Ashlee Halbritter, Wellness at Penn’s executive director of public health and well-being, told The Daily Pennsylvanian that the University is observing a decrease in on-campus COVID-19 cases following a spike earlier in the semester. Compared to this time in 2022, COVID-19 cases at Penn are down by 84 percent, according to Halbritter.

When the new vaccine was first approved in early September, Pfizer leadership suggested that it would soon be made available to the general public.

"We expect this season's vaccine to be available in the coming days, pending recommendation from public health authorities, so people can ask their doctor about receiving their COVID-19 vaccine during the same appointment as their annual flu shot," Albert Bourla, chairman and CEO of Pfizer, said in a statement upon the original FDA approval of the new vaccine.

However, a multitude of issues have slowed the rollout of the new vaccines. According to NBC News, some appointments have been canceled due to insurance company errors, while others have been canceled due to supply issues.

The CDC-run website to gauge vaccine availability currently does not list a single location within 100 miles of campus with both appointments available and the new vaccine in stock. According to the CVS website at the time of publication, no COVID-19 vaccine appointments are available in Philadelphia before Oct. 10, and the closest CVS location with an available appointment at that time is Camden, NJ.

Halbritter encouraged members of the Penn community to receive the updated COVID-19 vaccine.

“The new COVID booster is absolutely recommended for all of our college students, both undergraduates and graduates,” Halbritter said.

Penn Chief Wellness Officer Benoit Dubé echoed Halbritter, recommending that all members of the Penn community receive the booster as soon as they are able to do so.

“The best time to get the booster is when it is available, and whether it is through CVS or a healthcare provider in the community, our best advice is to get it when it is available and not wait,” Dubé said.