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Vaccination Nation

CDC clears COVID booster shots for seniors, at-risk, and — siding with FDA over advisory panel — frontline workers

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention late Thursday gave final authorization for tens of millions of Americans to get a COVID-19 booster shot — but it sided with the Food and Drug Administration over its own advisory panel in approving a third dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for people 18 and older who are at greater risk of infection because of their jobs. The other groups that can now sign up for booster shots are people 65 and older, those living in long-term care facilities, and adults 50 and older who have underlying health conditions. 

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky suggested Thursday night that she overruled the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices regarding frontline workers because it's her job "to recognize where our actions can have the greatest impact," and based on the "complex, often imperfect data," the CDC "must take actions that we anticipate will do the greatest good." The authorization only applies to a third Pfizer shot at least six months after a person's second dose, but Walensky said the CDC "will address, with the same sense of urgency, recommendations for the Moderna and J & J vaccines as soon as those data are available."

The CDC immunization advisory panel had agreed with the FDA on most booster populations it authorized Wednesday night, but it voted 9 to 6 against recommending third shots for health-care providers, teachers, prison guards, grocery store workers, and others whose "frequent institutional or occupational exposure" puts them at greater risk. 

Some panel members said they voted against boosters for frontline workers because it opened the door to too many people or gave the false impression that the vaccines aren't still incredibly effective at protecting most people against serious illness, hospitalization, and death. Others suggested boosters might take focus off the primary goal of getting unvaccinated people their first shots.

Biden administration officials had quietly hoped the CDC would side with the FDA, both so the nation's two top public health agencies would be in accord and also because President Biden and his advisers had wanted the booster shots cleared for most vaccinated Americans. In any case, "in reality, anyone who wants a booster will get one, as has already been happening," a federal health official told The Washington Post. More than two-thirds of COVID vaccinations are administered at pharmacies, and people don't need prescriptions or other documentation to get jabbed.