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CDC chief overrules panel, OKs boosters for health care workers


The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention late Thursday overruled the recommendation of the agency’s advisory panel to broaden the number of Americans who are now eligible for a third dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices earlier Thursday voted to allow several groups of Americans to get a booster shot, but voted not to recommend it for adults age 18 to 64 who live or work in a place where the risk of COVID-19 is high. That would have included health care workers and other frontline employees.

But CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, decided to reverse that recommendation and include the 18-to-64-year-olds in her final decision.

“As CDC Director, it is my job to recognize where our actions can have the greatest impact,” Dr. Walensky said in a statement late Thursday night, according to published reports. “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.”

Dr. Walensky agreed with the rest of the advisory committee's decisions, which included recommendations that the following groups also be eligible for a booster shot:

  • Adults ages 65 and up and residents of long-term care facilities
  • Adults ages 50 to 64 who have an underlying medical condition that may increase their risk from a COVID infection
  • Adults ages 18 to 49 who may be at increased risk from a COVID-19 infection because of an underlying medical condition, if a person feels like they need one based on a consideration of their individual benefit and risks.

About 26 million Americans are at least 6 months past the last dose of the Pfizer vaccines, making them eligible to receive a third dose. About 13.6 million of them are over the age of 65. Another 5.3 million are ages 50 to 64.

In making the recommendations, the committee left out healthcare workers. This was a departure from the Food and Drug Administration’s authorization which included boosters for those 65 and over, and for people 18 through 64 years of age who are at high risk for severe illness from the coronavirus, including essential workers – such as those in healthcare -- whose jobs increase their risk for infection.

This is the group Dr. Walensky added to the eligible list on her own.

Committee members “did not buy the need in occupational or institutional settings,” said William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Dr. Schaffner sits on the ACIP workgroup that considered the evidence behind boosters. He said that he would have voted yes to offer boosters to healthcare and other essential workers.

“There was a real split in the committee,” he said.

The vote on boosters for healthcare and other high-risk workers was rejected 9 to 6.

“I think that there is ample evidence that people such as healthcare workers do not have repeated exposure in the workplace,” said Beth Bell, MD, a clinical professor at the University of Washington. “They’re using PPE as they should and they’re following the other policies within the healthcare setting. There’s lots of evidence that suggest that health care workers who become infected become infected because of exposures in the community.”

She was not alone in feeling cautious.

“I think this is an extremely slippery slope,” said Sarah Long, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Drexel University in Philadelphia, before her vote to reject boosters for healthcare and other high-risk workers.

“We might as well just say, ‘Give it to everybody 18 and over.’ We have an extremely effective vaccine. It’s like saying it’s not working, and it is working.”

The committee saw data showing that all of the vaccines remain highly protective against hospitalization and death for all age groups, though protection against getting sick with COVID has waned slightly over time and with the dominance of the more contagious Delta variant. Those at highest risk for a severe breakthrough infection — those that cause hospitalization or death — are older adults.


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