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Federal health officials open up access to COVID-19 booster shots to all U.S. adults

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syringe prep

Syringes. are prepped with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine before being administered at Richmond Raceway in Richmond, Va., Feb. 2, 2021. 

Federal health officials on Friday moved to expand access to COVID-19 booster shots to all American adults, in an effort to bolster protection against infections as case counts rise again across the United States.

Officials with the Food and Drug Administration on Friday morning authorized booster shots for anyone over age 18 who received their second dose of a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine at least six months ago.

By late afternoon, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine advisory panel had affirmed that recommendation, leaving only the signoff from the CDC chief.

The policy change streamlines what had been a nuanced and confusing set of criteria.

Anyone older than 65 had been urged to get an additional dose of the Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, as well as anyone over 18 who has an underlying health condition.

Those under age 65 deemed to be at higher risk due to their work environment also were allowed to seek a third shot. (Anyone who received the one-dose shot from Johnson & Johnson already can receive an additional dose at least two months later under the federal rules.)

But a growing number of states — including Maine, Colorado, and New Mexico — have been forging ahead on their own to better protect their residents and to make it easier to communicate who exactly needs another vaccine.

During Friday’s CDC advisory panel meeting, Dr. Nirav Shah, president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said that during a conference call Thursday, his counterparts across the country expressed strong support for “expanding, clarifying, and simplifying” the booster guidelines.

“There was not a single state that voiced opposition to this move,” said Shah, who also serves as director of Maine’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “The current guidelines, though well-intentioned and thoughtful, generate an obstacle to uptake of boosters. In pursuit of precision, they create confusion.”

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey also found confusion about who is eligible for a booster shot, with 4 in 10 fully vaccinated individuals responding that they were unsure if they qualify.

So far, 31 million Americans have received a booster dose, including 17 million who are 65 and older, according to CDC data.

Determining who exactly needs those booster shots has been contentious.

Pfizer initially sought to offer booster doses to all American adults, and the Biden administration proclaimed in mid-August that it would launch a national booster campaign by Sept. 20.

But vaccine experts who advise the FDA and CDC recommended narrower eligibility requirements, expressing skepticism that the available data shows a need for every adult to receive another dose.

The CDC’s vaccine panel initially declined to recommend including employees at higher risk of exposure to the virus at their workplace, but the top CDC official added them back in the agency’s official guidance.

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