DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- The FDA approved and authorized new COVID-19 boosters Monday, as new case counts and emergency room visits slowly rise in North Carolina.
The new vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna target omicron subvariants, including XXB and EG.5.
"Probably the best value of the new vaccines is they'll protect us better from infection with newer variants than the bivalent vaccine that was created for older variants that aren't circulating now," said Dr. David Wohl, a Professor of Medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at UNC School of Medicine.
According to the NCDHHS dashboard, there were 493 patients admitted to the hospital with COVID-19, marking the seventh straight week of increases. However, compared to the same time period last year (1,004 patients), it is down more than 50%.
"There's nothing that we're seeing that shows the variants are more harmful (than prior variants). In other parts of the world that have been hit first, they're not seeing that they're more harmful. But they're probably more catchy, and that's exactly why these variants exist," said Wohl.
Wohl said he believes the uptick in cases is likely tied to a number of factors, including summer travel, people staying indoors because of the heat, large gatherings, and the return of school.
"Fortunately, there's not a surge like we've seen in previous years and that's a testament to the immunity that we've been able to build up, vis--vis vaccines and previous infections, or both," Wohl said.
The percentage of patients in the emergency room with COVID has also increased for seven straight weeks, though is below the same time period last year. More concerningly, virus particles in wastewater are more than eight times higher than late June, and well above the same time period last year.
"When the iceberg gets bigger, the tip of the iceberg gets bigger too. When more people get infected, more people end up in the hospital, and that's what we're seeing is there are some people who are requiring care, especially people who are fairly vulnerable," said Wohl.
At Durham Pharmacy on Fayetteville Road, Sree Bommu has heard from customers interested in the new vaccines.
"We've been getting calls since last week, and we've scheduled 50-60 (vaccines) the entire week," Bommu said.
He is awaiting CDC approval - the agency is set to meet on Tuesday - as well as further guidance on eligibility.
Unlike the initial vaccine rollout, in which all shots were free of charge, patients need to check with their insurers to confirm their provider is in-network. Children covered by Medicaid and underinsured children will be able to receive a free shot through the Vaccines for Children Program. NCDHHS said the state will receive a limited supply of free vaccines for uninsured adults, which they will target for use in uninsured populations.
Providers can now order vaccines directly from manufacturers, instead of going through the state for allocations.
"For our community, I don't see any problem getting whatever we need," said Bommu, who hopes to begin administering shots this week.
Wohl encourages people to get the vaccine, though those who have been infected within the past couple months could wait.
"I think if you wanted to wait and maybe top of your immunity towards December, that would make a lot of sense if you just recovered from COVID," said Dr. Wohl.
Tuesday, an independent advisory panel from the CDC is set to meet beginning at 10 AM to discuss recommendations.