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CDC Director Overrides Vote to Broaden Eligibility for Vaccines

September 24, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
Licensed vocational nurse Angeline Gabuten administers the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to a patient at Providence Edwards Lifesciences vaccination site in Santa Ana, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

ATLANTA, Ga.– Dr. Rochelle Walensky made an unusual break Friday from a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory panel by overruling its guidance on booster doses for the Pfizer/BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine.

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices approved the boosters Thursday for anyone 65 years and older; younger persons with underlying medical risks and residents of assisted living facilities.

However, the panel declined to authorize the additional doses for people with a high risk of exposure to COVID-19 from their occupations or group residences for non-disabled persons.

The occupations could include teachers, health care workers and grocery store clerks. The residential institutions could be prisons or homeless shelters, which previously have been hotbeds for spreading disease.

Walensky invoked her authority as the CDC’s director to order that occupational risks or living institutions could be a factor for authorizing the boosters.

Her own advisory panel said they were unnecessary. Walensky and her supporters say they would alleviate fears of health care workers and their patients as well as help with a safe return to in-class learning.

“As CDC Director, it is my job to recognize where our actions can have the greatest impact,” Walensky said in a statement. “At CDC, we are tasked with analyzing complex, often imperfect data to make concrete recommendations that optimize health. In a pandemic, even with uncertainty, we must take actions that we anticipate will do the greatest good.”

Before the Advisory Committee voted, some of its members expressed concern that widely offering the boosters could impede first-time injections for the unvaccinated.

The boosters are designated only for persons who received the second of two Pfizer shots at least six months earlier.

The Advisory Committee is expected to vote within weeks on boosters for recipients of the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

Walensky said the CDC “will address, with the same sense of urgency,” the use of COVID-19 boosters made by Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.

In their discussions before the vote, committee members said they were frustrated by the sparse information available for them to decide on boosters.

Part of the information came from Pfizer. Another part of it came from an Israeli study that showed third doses were effective at preventing breakthrough COVID-19 infections.

Without the boosters, the effectiveness of the vaccine started to decline after six months, the Israeli study showed.

The CDC’s decision was based largely on a Food and Drug Administration recommendation a day earlier.

The CDC vote gave the final approval needed for the booster vaccinations to proceed. About 60 million Americans are eligible to receive them.

President Joe Biden tried to sound upbeat Friday in an address to the nation about the possibility for vaccines to turn the tide on the pandemic.

“I’m moving forward with vaccination requirements wherever I can,” Biden said.

He revisited his frustration over an ongoing pandemic that he said is largely the fault of the unvaccinated.

“We still have over 70 million Americans who’ve failed to get a single shot,” he said. “To make matters worse, there are elected officials actively working to undermine, with false information, the fight against COVID-19.”

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