US booster shots start, even as millions remain unprotected

Coronavirus

FILE – In this Jan. 22, 2021, file photo, a certified medical assistant prepares doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. With more than 40 million doses of coronavirus vaccines available, U.S. health authorities said they’re confident both seniors and other vulnerable Americans seeking booster shots and parents anticipating approval of initial shots for young children will have easy access. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

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(WETM/AP) – The U.S. launched a campaign to offer boosters of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine to millions of Americans on Friday even as federal health officials stressed the real problem remains getting first shots to the unvaccinated.

“We will not boost our way out of this pandemic,” warned Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — even though she took the rare step of overruling the advice of her own expert panel to make more people eligible for the booster.

In Chemung County, the rollout of additional doses will begin as soon as possible, but getting the booster dose will be very similar to the original vaccine distribution process.

“Right now we’ve gotten our standing orders typed up. We just have to have them signed and then they’ll be approved. [Hopefully] we’ll be able to begin vaccinating those individuals at our health department clinics next week,” Pete Buzzetti, Chemung County Health director, said.

The vast majority of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are among the unvaccinated, Walensky noted. And all three COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S. offer strong protection against severe illness, hospitalization and death despite the extra-contagious delta variant that caused cases to soar. But immunity against milder infection appears to wane months after initial vaccination.

People anxious for another Pfizer dose lost no time rolling up their sleeves after Walensky ruled late Thursday on who’s eligible: Americans 65 and older and others vulnerable because of underlying health problems or where they work and live — once they’re six months past their last dose.

Health officials must clear up confusion over who should get a booster, and why. For now, the booster campaign is what Walensky called “a first step.” It only applies to people originally vaccinated with shots made by Pfizer and its partner BioNTech. Decisions on boosters for Americans who received Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccines are still to come.

President Joe Biden said if you’re vaccinated, “You’re in good shape and we’re doing everything we can to keep it that way, which is where the booster comes in.” He urged those now eligible for an extra shot to “go get the booster,” saying he’d get his own soon — and that everyone should be patient and wait their turn.

Exactly who should get a booster was a contentious decision as CDC advisers spent two days poring over the evidence. Walensky endorsed most of their choices: People 65 and older, nursing home residents and those ages 50 to 64 who have chronic health problems such as diabetes should be offered one once they’re six months past their last Pfizer dose. Those 18 and older with health problems can decide for themselves if they want a booster.

But in an extremely unusual move, Walensky overruled her advisers’ objections and decided an additional broad swath of the population also qualifies: People at increased risk of infection — not serious illness — because of their jobs or their living conditions. That includes health care workers, teachers and people in jails or homeless shelters.

“This was scientific close call,” Walensky said Friday. “In that situation it was my call to make.”

Experts say it was only the second time since 2000 that a CDC director overruled its advisory panel.

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