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Eligible Americans Can Now Get COVID-19 Booster Shots

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The delta variant of the coronavirus continues across much of the country, and many Americans who are vaccinated would like to increase their protection by getting another shot. Twenty million people are now eligible for a booster shot after a welter of scientists and government officials said that's necessary. And again, maybe not, Then maybe only for certain groups. So we turn now to NPR health policy correspondent Selena Simmons-Duffin. Good morning, Selena.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: All this back-and-forth about who should get a booster - what's the answer, ultimately, about who can right now?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So this only applies to certain groups of people who got the Pfizer shot more than six months ago. So those groups are anybody over age 65, certain people with underlying health conditions and anyone older than 18 in certain jobs or living in group settings. So this would apply to health and grocery store workers, people who live in homeless shelters, et cetera. So the boosters are free. They're available all over the country. You don't need a special doctor's note or anything. And because the Biden administration telegraphed that boosters were coming last month, hospitals and pharmacies say they're ready.

SIMON: It's been a busy few weeks for boosters, hasn't it?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, so Pfizer applied to FDA to approve boosters for everyone 16 and older, and that's what the Biden administration said they were planning for. But in a surprise move late last week, the FDA advisory panel rejected that plan and only recommended boosters for those limited groups. They said there wasn't enough evidence a wider rollout is necessary right now. And then, in another surprise move, a CDC advisory group recommended an even more limited group get these boosters. They left front-line workers out. But CDC Director Rochelle Walensky went against that advice and included the front-line group in CDC's official recommendation.

SIMON: Selena, how unusual is that for the CDC to differ from its advisers?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: It is quite unusual. Some reports characterized it as Walensky overruling her outside advisers. And in a briefing yesterday, she pushed back on that. She pointed out it was a close vote. Walensky emphasized the many hours of public debate, and she said she listened to all of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: This was a scientific close call. In that situation, it was my call to make.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She said in a pandemic, you often have to make decisions with imperfect information and that she wanted to make boosters available to more people who might benefit rather than withhold that access.

SIMON: People who want boosters are being told to wait for six months past the date of their last Pfizer shot. What's the reasoning there?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, in the same briefing, the president's medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, addressed that question. He said, don't run and try to get a booster if you've been vaccinated more recently than six months ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTHONY FAUCI: There's an immunological reason why it's important to wait because, you know, if you allow the immune response to mature over a period of a few months, you get much more of a bang out of the shot, as it were, an enhancement of your antibodies.

SIMON: And let's be clear on this point, Selena. This is just for people who got the Pfizer vaccine.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right.

SIMON: Is there a plan for those who got Moderna or Johnson & Johnson?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Health officials yesterday said they know people who got these other shots are perhaps wondering why they have to wait. And they said it's because they just don't have the data they need to make determinations about boosters with those shots yet but that they will be reviewing the data as it comes in as quickly as they can. So basically, they said, stay tuned.

SIMON: Well, we will. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin, thanks so much.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.