The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday approved booster shots for millions of elderly or other vulnerable Americans, ushering in an important new milestone in the U.S. COVID-19 vaccination campaign.
CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walenski signed a series of advisory panel recommendations late Thursday.
Counselors said the boosters should be offered to people 65 and older, nursing home residents, and people aged 50 to 64 with dangerous health problems. An additional dose will be given when they are at least six months after their last Pfizer shot.
However, Walensky decided to make one recommendation, which the group rejected.
On Thursday, the commission voted against claims that people can get boosted if they are 18 to 64 years old, work in health care, or have other jobs that put them at increased risk of contracting the virus.
But Walenski disagreed and returned the recommendation, noting that such a move is in line with the FDA’s decision to authorize boosters earlier this week. The category she included includes people living in institutions that increase the risk of infection, such as prisons or homeless shelters, and health workers.
The group proposed a revaccination option for people between the ages of 18 and 49 who have chronic health problems and want them. But the advisers refused to go further and opened boosters for otherwise healthy healthcare workers who are not at risk of serious illness but want to avoid even mild infection.
The group voted 9 to 6 to reject the proposal. But Walensky decided to ignore the advice of the advisory committee on the matter. In the decision, a few hours after the commission’s hiatus, Walenski issued a statement saying that she reinstated the recommendation.
“As a CDC director, my job is to understand where our actions can have the greatest impact,” Walenski said in a statement late Thursday. “At CDC, our challenge is to analyze complex, often imperfect data to make specific recommendations for optimizing health. During a pandemic, even in the midst of uncertainty, we must take the actions that we expect will bring the greatest benefit. ”
Experts say getting the first shots for the unvaccinated remains a top priority, and the group decided whether the booster debate was distracting from that goal.
All three COVID-19 vaccines used in the United States continue to offer high protection against serious illness, hospitalization, and death, even with the spread of the extrainfectious delta variant. But only about 182 million Americans are fully vaccinated, or just 55% of the population.
“We can give people stimulants, but this is not really the answer to this pandemic,” said Dr. Helen Keipp Talbot of Vanderbilt University. “Hospitals are overcrowded because people are not vaccinated. We refuse to help people who deserve treatment because we have a lot of unvaccinated COVID patients. “
Thursday’s decision represents a sharp scaling back of the Biden administration’s plan, announced last month, to provide accelerators to nearly everyone in order to bolster their defenses. Late Wednesday, the FDA, like the CDC group, approved Pfizer boosters for a much narrower segment of the population than the White House had anticipated.
The revaccination plan marks an important shift in the country’s commitment to vaccination. The UK and Israel are already undertaking a third round of vaccines, despite strong objections from the World Health Organization that poor countries are short of starting doses.
Walenski opened the meeting on Thursday, stressing that vaccinating the unvaccinated remains a top goal “here in America and around the world.”
Walensky admitted that the data on who really needs the launch vehicle right now is “imperfect.” “However, collectively they form a picture for us,” she said, “and they are what we have at the moment to decide on the next phase of this pandemic.”
The CDC team stressed that its recommendations will be changed if new data show that more people require revaccination.
CDC consultants have raised concerns about the millions of Americans who received Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccines early in the vaccine introduction. The government is still not considering boosters for these brands and has no data on whether it is safe or effective to mix and match Pfizer shots to these people.
“I just don’t understand how we can tell people 65 and older this afternoon:“ You risk getting seriously ill and dying, but only half of you can protect yourself right now, ”said Dr. Sarah Long. Drexel University.
About 26 million Americans received their last dose of Pfizer at least six months ago, about half of them age 65 or older. It is unclear how many more people will meet the CDC’s qualifications.
CDC data show that vaccines continue to provide robust protection against serious illness for all ages, but there has been a slight decline among older adults. And immunity against a milder infection seems to wane a few months after the initial immunization of people.
For most people, if you are not part of the recommended booster group, “it really is because we think you are well protected,” said Dr. Matthew Daly of Kaiser Permanente Colorado.
Public health experts, who were not involved in Thursday’s decision, said it is unlikely that people looking for third doses at a pharmacy or elsewhere will be required to prove they meet the requirements.
Even with the introduction of boosters, someone who only received the first two doses will be considered fully vaccinated, according to Dr. Kathleen Dooling of the CDC. This is an important question for people in those parts of the country where you need to show proof of vaccination in order to eat in a restaurant or visit other places of work.
The CDC concluded that there is little risk among people who may benefit from the booster vaccine. Serious side effects from the first two doses of Pfizer are extremely rare, including heart inflammation, which sometimes occurs in young men. Data from Israel, which gave nearly 3 million people – mostly 60 years and older – a third dose of Pfizer, did not reveal any warning signs.
The United States has already approved third doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for some people with weakened immune systems, such as cancer patients and transplant recipients. Other Americans, healthy or not, have managed to get stimulants, in some cases simply by asking.