Los Angeles County on Friday began administering Pfizer booster shots shortly after the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approved third doses of the vaccine for certain groups, including frontline workers.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky overruled an agency advisory panel that had refused to endorse the booster shots for healthcare workers, teachers, grocery workers and others whose jobs put them at risk.
L.A. County's director of public health, Barbara Ferrer, said the county is prepared to offer boosters for those over 65, residents of long-term care facilities, those who are immunocompromised in addition to those working in high-risk industries.
The move paves the way for plans announced by Gov. Gavin Newsom Thursday that his administration would roll out Pfizer vaccine boosters following the Food and Drug Administration's approval of the shots. State officials said their MyTurnVaccine Platform will start taking appointments on Friday.
The approvals set the stage for a massive inoculation campaign with millions in the state expected to become eligible for a third shot. In Los Angeles County, health officials estimate slightly over 1 million people got two doses of Pfizer before April 1 and about 420,000 of them were 65 years old and older.
Still, as more and more people seek a booster shot, clinics are likely to experience another flood of vaccine demands at a time where large vaccination sites like Dodgers Stadium have reverted back to their original purpose.
Here's what to expect:
Am I eligible to get the booster shot?
Newsom announced California residents over the age of 65 or who work in high-risk settings can begin receiving booster shots along with severely immunocompromised people.
The booster shot is not recommended for children, nor for people who received the Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccine, even if they meet the age or occupation criteria. MyTurn will send a text message to Californians as they become eligible for the booster.
Where can I get the booster?
Residents should visit MyTurn.ca.gov and make an appointment or find a walk-in appointment at a clinic that offers the Pfizer shot, since it's not guaranteed every vaccine clinic will have a supply of the Pfizer booster shot. Those who qualify for in-person vaccinations can call the Department of Health Services at 833-540-0473. Residents will also need to bring proof of their previous vaccinations, either in the form of a vaccination card, digital record or a photo of the vaccination card.
Will people who got the Moderna or J&J shots be eligible for the Pfizer booster shot?
The FDA has not approved any other booster shots except for Pfizer's. Those who received other vaccines are not eligible for a Pfizer booster, but the FDA said it is working to quickly approve the Moderna booster shot.
When after getting my shots should I wait for a booster?
The FDA recommends the Pfizer booster shots be taken at least six months after receiving their second vaccination dose.
Will clinics be asking for some kind of proof of eligibility?Clinics will require vaccine proof to make sure the person has received two Pfizer doses before getting the booster. Here are the forms of vaccine proof the city, county and state accept. People may also have to sign an attestation form that confirms they meet the criteria of getting the booster.
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After years of playing second fiddle to biotech hubs like San Diego and Boston, Los Angeles is doubling down on its investment in bioscience.
Next month, the 20,000 square foot BioscienceLA office opens in Culver City (on the site of an old county courthouse), to act as a "headquarters" for the many bioscience startups, entrepreneurs, and researchers scattered across L.A. County. The county invested more than $10 million into the project.
In the neighboring area of Baldwin Hills, L.A. City Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas spearheaded a project to dust off a handful of decades-old abandoned parcels for a project known as Marlton Square. Though the project has yet to break ground, it's expected to include lab space and a collaboration space for venture capital firms, bioscience startups and entrepreneurs.
"We have all of the pieces here," said Dave Whelan, the CEO of BioscienceLA. "We need a sort of connective tissue that brings those resources, brings that energy, brings those developments together."
Los Angeles never enjoyed the reputation as a biotech hub the way San Diego and Boston have, partly because of its geography. There are clusters of biotech development teeming in different parts of the city and county, but they're all separated by freeways.
Big pharma giant Amgen, for instance, is surrounded by a slew of startups in Thousand Oaks. Companies spun out of USC, UCLA and CalTech stay in the nearby neighborhoods, as many researchers still work at those institutions and sometimes use their facilities.
The Westside is scattered with biotech companies thanks to the Lundquist Institute and Kite Pharma. Further inland, where the land is vast, developers are looking to build manufacturing facilities that serve as an important production arm for the industry.
"Because it's spread out in all these little clusters, (Los Angeles) has never really gotten the traction that it should because it's sort of hard to connect all the dots," said Shaun Stiles, executive director of the real estate firm Cushman and Wakefield who tracks bioscience real estate development. "When you have these life science developers or owners coming in, looking into L.A., they're used to doing stuff in Boston, San Diego and all these big hubs."
That might change as L.A. County continues its large-scale investments in the industry. Los Angeles County signed off on research firm Lundquist Institute's 15-acre biotech park at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center last year. It has sunk economic development dollars into the high-paying field of bioscience and a handful of other industries due to the projected growth of job development in the industry.
Last summer it allotted $15 million to a bioscience investment fund to spur homegrown biotech startups. According to the county, the local bioscience industry netted more than $44 billion in economic activity and 195,820 jobs.
"I see bioscience as a phenomenal opportunity in this area for two reasons: the industry has tremendous value to our health and health systems, and careers in the bioscience industry tend to pay family-supporting wages, providing an opportunity for low-income communities of color to enter into the middle class," said Ridley-Thomas, who as a former county supervisor was also heavily involved in BioscienceLA.
Whelan, for his part, envisions L.A. becoming the home to some of the biggest bioscience innovations in the country, with global bioscience investors flying through the city and camping out of the Culver City building to hold meetings, as opposed to driving from one startup in Thousand Oaks to another in Santa Monica."Rather than spending half of the day on the freeway to have two or three meetings across L.A., you spend half an hour on the freeway camp out at Bioscience, L.A. for the day and have about six or seven meetings come to you. And so it becomes much more of an efficient way to kind of connect with L.A."
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It's hard to overstate just how painful a process treating burn victims is – for burn victims, air itself is excruciatingly painful. They have to undergo weeks of undressing wounds, cleaning the tender skin of debris, slathering the area with ointment, and redressing it with new bandages, and it is considered one of the most physically painful treatments in medicine. To combat this, most patients rely on consistent and heavy opioid usage.
But in 2008, University of Washington researchers published the first study of its kind using virtual reality (VR) to mitigate the use of the highly-addictive drugs. The researchers replaced the clinical hospital setting with a computer-generated snowtopia where patients could throw snowballs with penguins and snowmen through a VR headset as doctors washed the treatment area. It worked, and the study concluded that VR could replace part of an opioid dose.
A decade later, VR medicine has taken off, spawning a clutch of companies and a new field of study for what is considered one of the most promising and powerful noninvasive tools to treat pain. It's now a growing part of an $885.7 million VR health care industry.
In the eyes of Jeffrey I. Gold, a pain management doctor at the Children's Hospital Los Angeles, it's the future of medicine, as virtual reality has the potential of eliminating the need for billions of dollars worth of drugs.
If Gold is right, as researchers are increasingly finding, this could have a ripple effect across the healthcare industry eventually lowering health care costs as patients rely less on drugs to offset pain.
"That's really where VR needs to go, is into the place where you can start reducing the need for certain types of medicines that may have side effects." Gold said.
How VR Works to Mitigate Pain
Conventional pain management techniques rely on distractions like blowing bubbles with younger patients or administering pain relievers or sedation. Unlike those, VR has the unique ability to manipulate how the brain processes pain by engaging the senses with powerful immersive experiences.
Gold published a study looking at how VR impacted pain in children. Researchers gave children aged 12 to 17 who were getting blood drawn VR headsets and instructed them to play a game made specifically to soothe pain. Once they put on the set, health care workers drew blood.
They then compared the experience to children who were given traditional distraction methods like bubbles or reading a book, and soothing techniques.
The study found children who used VR during their procedures felt less pain and anxiety than children who didn't.
"People always talk about, 'you're just distracting the kid like, 'hey, look over here'.' Well, that's not what we're doing," Gold said. "It's a little bit more involved with regards to immersion, presence, something we call cognitive load."
One way to think about pain is like an "alarm" the brain sets off. VR directs the brain to set off more relaxing "sounds" in the form of a visual and audible world that forces the senses to experience something else. This drowns out that "alarm" created by the pain. The brain, effectively, does not register the needle placement as as painful as it would be without VR.
The study confirmed what researchers have been seeing for years. But what excited Gold was its potential for children: By making procedures more engaging and less painful, children with chronic conditions may become less fearful about treating their condition, he said.
"For a child to have a positive experience on a routine procedure, that can be a game changer for that kid."
Other researchers looking at the use of VR are finding that not only does the technology engage the patient's senses, but in some cases it can act as a support network, much like a family. Another study by Cedars Sinai Los Angeles used VR to assist women going into labor with painful contractions. Researchers put a headset on women in labor showing them soothing animated scenes of nature that pulsated, almost as if the elements were breathing. A calm voice used words of encouragement to help the mother through contractions.
Women who used the VR reported lower levels of pain and anxiety, much like the children.
"What I think was so impactful about this particular intervention, actually, is that what they were hearing was very much the same things ... you might hear from a doula" said Dr. Melissa Wong, maternal-fetal medicine specialist at Cedars-Sinai Los Angeles who led the study.
'A Pharmacy of VR'
Wong's study at Cedars-Sinai indicated VR could be an alternative to epidurals or nitrous oxide – two common pain management solutions used during labor. But, even more than that, it pointed to a slew of history that shows pain is not just an acute or chronic sensation in the body that causes your brain to raise alarm, it's also the environment around you.
Wong said one of the strongest indicators of whether or not patients ask for epidurals during labor is whether or not they have a birth support person in the form of a partner, family member or doula. Patients that don't are more likely to need an epidural.
"So it's suggesting, again, that [pain] is sort of the entire way in which everything is being approached, rather than just literally the pain fibers," said Wong.
In other words, pain isn't simply a feeling. It is also a patient's support system, surroundings and mental fitness. By taking patients out of a clinical hospital setting of linoleum floors and wheeling carts and into a magical virtual world that has its own soundscapes and therapeutic guides, their pain can appear to be far less than what it might be.
Brennan Spiegel, a doctor at Cedars-Sinai Los Angeles who oversees virtual reality programs, coined "a pharmacy of VR" -- the idea that VR therapies should be created to help specific situations, like going through labor, dressing a burn wound, undergoing chemotherapy or having an anxiety attack.
But the industry is still young and many of the devices have yet to gain full Food and Drug Administration approval. Still, there's growing demand.
Companies Are Getting Involved
Companies like seven-year-old Alameda-based KindVR are using virtual reality programs to soothe pediatric patients before an MRI and calm them before an operation. XRHealth, a five-year-old company based in Massachusetts, offers a host of applications designed to treat physical immobility and mental health.
And the six-year-old Los Angeles-based AppliedVR developed a suite of VR-based "video games" meant to soothe anxiety for veterans and treat acute pain for people giving birth and burn victims. The company has raised around $34 million to date, the most any startup in the chronic pain market has raised, and valued at over $67 million, according to Pitchbook.
Following the idea of a 'pharmacy for VR', AppliedVR has two opioid-sparing treatments -- one for patients to use to help with acute pain, and one for chronic pain. The effects of chronic pain are often long lasting stress and a feat of moving, which is why the company incorporates cognitive behavioral therapy into the treatment.
Their chronic pain product is EaseVRx, a VR device used in an eight-week program that takes patients through different educational and training modules to explain to them how stress can affect pain, how they can avoid stress, and how to utilize breathing and acceptance-based therapy to reduce pain long after taking off the VR headset.
Laura Garcia, director of research, design and product innovation at AppliedVR said the company found that patients are able to utilize the benefits of VR up to six months after taking off the headset.
"While you're in the headset, you're able to learn your skill sets and change your brain so that you're able to cope with the pain differently," she said. "So imagine having a pill that gives you benefits and relieves [pain] for the time that you use the pill for, but also six months after."
Correction: An earlier version of this misidentified EaseVRx and misstated the length of its VR training program.
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