Texans are entering their fourth fall with COVID-19, along with a new crop of resources to help mitigate the virus, including updated vaccines.
As is often the case during the back-to-school season, COVID-19 has increased in recent weeks — though not to the same extent as in previous years. Laboratory test data reported by Austin Public Health (APH) showed that the local number of positive tests increased throughout August, peaking at 211 positive cases on August 21. That number decreased os down in September.
However, as APH Chief of Epidemiology Janet Pichette told KUT last month, confirmed lab testing no longer provides a complete picture of the amount of virus circulating in the community.
“Part of that reason is due to the use of rapid home antigen tests,” Pichette said. “And in some cases, because people are vaccinated, they may experience mild disease, or they may be asymptomatic and not tested, but they’re out there transmitting the disease.”
Increasingly, health authorities are studying the concentration of COVID-19 in waste samples to track the spread of the virus. In Austin, this concentration peaked around August 30. It has decreased since then, but the virus still appears to be more active than in June, when the wastewater data was confirmed.
Amid this recent increase in cases, Travis County hospitals remain relatively low, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
How to test
With the end of the federal COVID-19 emergency this spring, insurance companies will no longer be required to cover the cost of rapid at-home COVID antigen tests. HEB currently offers tests for $10.18 each and CVS has a two-pack variety for $24.
The Biden administration announced last week that it would provide a new round of free home tests by mail, with a limit of four per household. They can now be requested. Austin Public Health also offers free rapid antigen testing at local neighborhood centers while supplies last.
If the result of the home test is negative, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends doing a second test after 48 hours, especially if you have possible symptoms of COVID-19, such as sore throat, fever, cough , difficulty breathing, or loss of taste and smell.
However, the CDC continues to consider the PCR molecular test to be the “gold standard” test that provides the most accurate results. These tests are available at health centers and are sent to a laboratory for processing, which usually takes about three days.
If you test positive for COVID-19, the CDC says you should self-isolate for at least five days, and continue testing as your symptoms improve. You can also ask your doctor about antiviral treatments like Paxlovid, which can help prevent the disease from becoming severe.
The FDA and CDC this month gave the go-ahead for the updated Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. The new formulation uses the same mRNA technology as the original vaccine, but has been adapted to target newer variants of COVID-19. The FDA says the vaccine shows strong protection against severe disease caused by the most common variants circulating today, including the widespread EG.5, a subvariant of the so-called omicron. In addition, the vaccine may reduce the chance of developing long-term complications from the virus, such as long-term COVID.
The CDC recommends that everyone over six months of age receive the new vaccine, as long as at least eight weeks have passed since the previous COVID vaccination. People who have recently been vaccinated against COVID can wait up to three months before being vaccinated again, but there is no hard and fast rule. You can get the flu vaccine at the same time as the COVID vaccine.
“Our message is simple: If you’ve been denied coverage, call your insurance to find out about in-network coverage to receive the updated COVID-19 vaccine.”
Spokesperson for Health and Human Services
Many pharmacies and health care providers have already opened appointments to offer the new vaccine, including large chains such as CVS and Walgreens. Austin Public Health ordered a shipment of the new vaccine to supply its clinics, but the shipment has not yet arrived.
You can find a complete list of places that offer the vaccine at Vaccines.gov.
According to the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), most private insurance plans must cover the cost of the new vaccine, just like Medicare and Medicaid. However, in recent days, some policy holders have reported being billed $130 or more out of pocket for the vaccine.
A CVS representative confirmed to KUT that CVS customers are experiencing this issue due to delays with insurers.
“Some payers are still updating their systems and may not be ready to cover updated COVID-19 vaccines,” said Matt Blanchette, CVS communications manager. “When this happens, our pharmacy teams can help patients book an appointment for a later date.”
An HHS spokesperson also said the agency is aware that “some consumers have experienced unexpected denials of insurance coverage at the point of service.”
“Our message is simple: If you have been denied due to lack of coverage, please call your insurance for in-network coverage details to receive the updated COVID-19 vaccine,” the spokesperson said.
Uninsured adults who want to get the vaccine for free or at low cost can visit vaccine providers who participate in the CDC’s Bridge Access program. Parents who want to find vaccines for their children can also find a provider through the Vaccines for Children program, in which APH participates.