Biden announces expanded booster rollout amid confusion over eligibility

President Joe Biden said his administration will begin to deliver booster shots this week after the nation’s two leading health agencies endorsed a third dose of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine for individuals older than 65 and people at high risk.

“We have the tools to beat Covid if we come together as a country and use the tools we have,” Biden said in a speech Friday. “This week we took a step in protecting the vaccinated with booster shots. I’ve made clear all along … the decision of which booster shot to give and who will get them is left to the scientists and the doctors.”

The announcement came hours after CDC Director Rochelle Walensky overruled an agency advisory committee to allow health care workers and other people with significant on-the-job Covid-19 exposure to get the Pfizer-BioNtech booster. That decision ended weeks of speculation about whether the Food and Drug Administration and CDC would move to authorize the shots before the president’s end of September deadline.

In addition to the elderly and those with workplace exposure to Covid-19, the Pfizer-BioNTech booster will now be available to nursing-home residents, people 18 and older with underlying health conditions that increase their chances of severe illness. But the policy does not allow for boosters to be given to people initially vaccinated with the Moderna or Johnson & Johnson shots.

Biden said the CDC’s decision would immediately make 20 million people eligible for boosters, with up to 60 million becoming eligible in the coming months. But even as the White House moves to expand booster availability, the president emphasized that a quarter of the country have not yet had even one dose of Covid-19 vaccine.

“We still have over 70 million Americans who have failed to get a single shot,” Biden said. “There are elected officials actively working to undermine with false information the fight against Covid-19. This is totally unacceptable.”

Top health officials inside the administration have for weeks debated whether there was enough domestic data to support administering boosters to most adults — a plan that White House officials and Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical officer, pushed for this summer. In the end, the FDA and the CDC decided that the additional shots should be given to a narrower population.

The CDC’s advisory panel ruled Thursday to limit the distribution of the booster shots to people aged 65 and older and nursing home residents, along with people 18 to 64 with health conditions that increase their risk of severe Covid-19.

Walensky overruled her advisory board just before 1 a.m. Friday, endorsing the use of Pfizer and BioNTech’s Covid-19 booster shot for workers at high risk as well as the groups covered in the advisory panel’s recommendations. Walensky framed the decision as bringing CDC’s recommendation in line with FDA’s booster authorization.

“Dr. Walensky made a good judgment and showed good leadership in making that decision,” Fauci told POLITICO. “I totally agree and support that decision she made.”

Biden’s announcement marks a turning point for his administration — and the country — as it takes its next step in fighting Covid-19 in the U.S. Top health officials have warned of the potential for a surge in cases and hospitalizations this fall as Americans begin to gather indoors for the holidays. Officials, including Fauci, believe vaccine efficacy will continue to wane over the next several months and more booster shots will be needed to help curb another surge.

The federal government will once again need to kick-start a delivery and shipment operation to get booster shots to retail pharmacies and other health care facilities for distribution. The administration will draw on an existing infrastructure first concocted by former President Donald Trump’s Operation Warp Speed which allowed for the delivery of doses to a wide range of settings, including public health departments across the country. Multiple state health officials told POLITICO they are on standby awaiting instructions from the federal government about ordering and allocating booster shots.


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