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New COVID vaccine shipments to some Philly-area pharmacies have been delayed

Ethan Calof wanted to schedule an appointment for the updated COVID vaccine as soon as they could. So when their phone buzzed with a text message CVS advertising the shots, they scored one of the earliest possible slots, for Sept. 16.

“I have a lot of immunocompromised family members, and I know a bunch of people who got COVID over the last couple weeks,” said Calof, who moved to Philadelphia a month ago. “It’s important for me to stay up on them.”

But when Calof arrived at a CVS on 15th and Spruce Streets for their appointment, employees told them the shots hadn’t arrived yet. “They had been expecting them, and they seemed just as frustrated as me,” Calof said. They ended up getting only their flu shot.

Calof’s experience was mirrored at some chain pharmacy locations around the Philadelphia region this weekend, as the updated vaccines — approved by federal authorities just last week — are still getting shipped out.

The updated vaccines are designed to protect against a newer COVID variant, XBB.1.5, which is itself a variant of the omicron strain of the virus that caused widespread illness last fall. Early testing of the vaccines shows that they are also effective against other variants circulating in the United States.

With COVID cases on an uptick, many Philadelphians were eager to get the latest shot. But some chain pharmacies in the area were seeing delivery delays this week that forced them to reschedule appointments.

A CVS spokesperson said the pharmacy chain is getting the vaccines on “a rolling basis” and that most locations have been able to honor appointments. Stores that haven’t received supplies will offer more appointments when they get shipments of the vaccine.

Walgreens representatives also said they’d seen supply delays at a “small number of locations” and have contacted everyone affected to reschedule their appointments.

“In the early days of this launch, and as supply is delivered to Walgreens, patients are encouraged to schedule an appointment or call ahead,” a spokesperson wrote in an email.

At Rite Aid, another major chain pharmacy in the area, vaccines will not be available until Friday. Representatives there said they had offered appointments “when we know stores will have vaccines” to make sure they wouldn’t have to reschedule appointments.

The city health department is also receiving some vaccines to supply the Vaccines for Children program and Bridge Access providers, who provide vaccines at no cost. The department is not expecting them until later this week, department spokesperson Jim Garrow said.

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Insurance coverage issues force some to pay out of pocket

Some local residents have also reported issues with getting their insurance to cover the shots. Before the public health emergency over COVID ended this spring, the federal government ensured that COVID vaccines were available for free.

Commercial insurance plans now are expected to cover the newest shots, since the vaccine is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as long as patients get their vaccine at a provider within their plan’s coverage network, said Robert Field, a professor of law and health management and policy at Drexel University.

But some insurance companies have not updated their billing codes to accommodate the new vaccine, and some patients who were able to secure an early appointment for the shot were told they had to pay out of pocket, in some cases up to $190, according to news reports and patients who spoke to The Inquirer.

Those issues should be resolved in the coming weeks, Field said.

“Given that it was just approved a few days ago, and there was a question mark as to whether it would be approved to everyone or just vulnerable groups, it’s not surprising it would take the companies or distributors some time to gear up,” he said. “My first piece of advice to people is just give it a couple weeks. We’ve waited this long for the booster, and you’re unlikely to need it tomorrow.”

Field also encouraged patients to check that their vaccine provider is considered in-network by their insurance carrier, which can help to reduce out-of-pocket costs.

Some Philadelphians have already received their shot with no problem. “It was such an easy process: We got a text message, I registered my husband and myself, they had a ton of appointments at my CVS, and we were out of there within half an hour,” said Sarah Falkowski, who lives in Roxborough.

She said the decision to get the updated shot was similarly easy: “Both of us are back to hybrid work, my son is in school, and we’ve always been a vaccine family. This felt like a very obvious choice,” she said.

Uncertain demand for the new COVID vaccine

Demand for the new vaccines is hard to gauge this early in the process, the Philadelphia health department said.

Fewer Philadelphians received an updated COVID booster shot released last fall — the bivalent vaccines that protected against the original COVID strain and another variant — than those who received at least one dose of the first vaccine made available during the pandemic. As of July 13, about 1.3 million Philadelphians had received at least one shot. About 236,000 doses of the bivalent shot had been reported to the city health department.

Still, about 57% of registered voters across America told researchers conducting a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll that they plan to get an updated booster shot this fall.

The city health department recommends that everyone over the age of 6 months — except for those who have been vaccinated against COVID in the last two months —get a booster.

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