The updated vaccine for COVID-19 is here — sort of. 

Federal health care agencies are recommending people get the updated vaccine, which offers better and longer protection against new coronavirus variants. But that’s been tricky, with reported shipment delays and snags in getting the vaccine covered by insurance. 

It’s the first time health care providers are having to pay out-of-pocket to order the vaccines, since the federal government stopped supplying them for free following the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency. 

Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mandy Cohen, took to social media last week to address the access issues, and encourage people to be patient. 

“It’s important to know that there is vaccine available; you will be able to get one,” Cohen said in the video. “We’re in contact with vaccine manufacturers and pharmacies as they work to get more vaccine delivered across the country.” 

In rural areas, accessibility may be more of a challenge. 

Lisa McDonald is a pharmacist for Sandersville Drug Company in Washington County. She said many independent pharmacies are a hesitant to order doses. 

“Here we're having to put the money upfront, not even knowing what the third-party insurances are going to pay,” McDonald said. “And I don't think we'll have people paying out of pocket cash for them because I do think they're going to be fairly expensive.” 

These days, COVID-19 vaccines from manufacturers Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech are around $130 a dose, almost triple the cost of them during the public health emergency. McDonald said Pfizer requires orders of no less than 10 doses. 

My plan is to go ahead and get the first 10 in and see how quickly we go through them,” McDonald said. 

Like most other small pharmacies, it’ll be a couple more weeks until they have vaccines available for people who want them. 

“We do have some people asking already,” McDonald said. “Not the wide majority like we did back when COVID was really, really heavy hitting. But immunocompromised people or people with co-morbidity issues are asking.”


Where are vaccines available now? 

While big-box pharmacies like Walgreens and CVS have appointments available for the new vaccine, there have been reports of canceled appointments because of shipment delays, so people are encouraged to call ahead. 

Local outlets of the Georgia Department of Public Health, of which there is one in every county, have been offering opportunities for vaccination, but delays are affecting supply there, too. 

“We are receiving the supplies," said Michael Hokanson, spokesperson for the North Central Public Health District based in Macon. "However, we are receiving them very slowly.”

Meanwhile, there aren’t any vaccine appointments available yet through the state’s scheduling portal, likely because of varied availability, said Bonzo Reddick, director of the Coastal Public Health District. 

“I think until people are able to uniformly roll out, they haven't advertised that way,” Reddick said, because not every county has vaccines available yet.

In Reddick’s part of the state, so far, vaccines are only available in Glynn and Chatham counties for both insured and uninsured populations as of Monday.

“There are some districts that actually don't have any vaccines yet," Redick said. "We don't have any control over that. We ordered them for all eight of our counties at the same time.”

Glynn and Chatham are the most populous counties in the Coastal Public Health District. 


What about cost? 

Although the COVID-19 vaccine isn’t free to providers, it is supposed to be free to almost all consumers. 

Private health insurance companies have been told by the federal government that they must cover all costs associated with administering recommended vaccines to adults and children. Most but not all with health insurance through Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program have also been ensured coverage. 

For people without insurance, the federal Bridge to Access program and Vaccines for Children program are supposed to guarantee free vaccines. Most pharmacies, doctors offices and federally qualified health centers are expected to participate in this program, which people can search for specifically through the federal government’s vaccine finder website. No prior eligibility is required. 

In Georgia’s Public Health Departments, vaccines for people without insurance cost an administrative fee of $22. But, like most other services offered by the public health department, people will not be turned away if they can’t pay that fee.