Federal health officials are calling on American adults vaccinated against COVID-19 to receive a booster shot starting this fall, a process that will begin with health care workers, long-term care residents, senior citizens and other vulnerable groups.

The New Jersey Department of Health is preparing to offer booster doses of the vaccines to the general public, it said in a statement Wednesday following the announcement earlier that day from clinical and public health officials at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. More than 5.4 million New Jerseyans are now fully vaccinated, according to state data.

“Details will be forthcoming,” the state health department said Wednesday.

The protocol for what will be third shots for most immunized individuals must still be approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration, which has begun the review process for one of the available vaccines. The New Jersey health department said it is also awaiting recommendations from an advisory committee of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Health care workers

New Jersey hospital leaders welcomed the updated federal advice to help protect health care workers from infection and said their facilities were ready to do their part, according to a statement from New Jersey Hospital Association president and CEO Cathy Bennett. New daily diagnoses of COVID-19 among hospital workers have remained in the single digits all summer — down from a peak this year of more than 160 cases a day in early January — but the rise of the more contagious delta variant of the coronavirus has added to the risk.

“Our dedicated healthcare workers, who were prioritized for the first doses more than eight months ago, continue to serve on the front lines of the pandemic. It makes sense that they should be among the first to receive the third dose once it is available,” Bennett said. “We are prepared to get shots in the arms of all eligible hospital staff, who may come into contact with COVID-positive patients and, therefore, remain at high risk of contracting the virus.”

Here are key details from Wednesday’s announcement on booster shots:

What’s new? In a group statement from some of its key medical and public health leaders, the federal government said that based on data from multiple sources it appears that the protection offered by the three available vaccines diminishes over time. This is particularly concerning as the delta variant, which now accounts for more than nine out of 10 cases nationwide, is even more transmissible than the original form of the virus. The need is most pressing for those at greater risk of infection, or greater risk of hospitalization or death if they do contract COVID-19.

Around the six-month mark in the data, you start to see increases in mild to moderate infection,” U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy said at a Wednesday news briefing, according to the Washington Post. “The most important purpose of the vaccine is to keep us out of the hospital and to save our life … And, fortunately, we are seeing that still holding at a high level, which is good news,” Murthy continued. “But our anticipation is that if the trajectory that we are seeing continues, that we will likely see in the future an increase in breakthrough hospitalizations and breakthrough deaths.”

Does this mean the vaccines aren’t effective? No. HHS stressed that the vaccines in use remain highly effective at keeping fully immunized individuals out of the hospital and alive. But the virus continues to spread among unvaccinated people, including a growing number of children too young to be eligible for vaccination. And public health officials are worried about a rise in breakthrough cases — or infections among those who are immunized. Federal and state officials are also continuing their efforts to get more people started on their vaccination journey, as protection remains lacking in some communities.

How will the booster-shot program work? While details have yet to emerge on the federal or state levels, HHS said the booster-shot program will  start the week of Sept. 20 for fully vaccinated adults ages 18 and older. Health care workers, residents of nursing homes and other long-term care, senior citizens and others at risk for bad outcomes from infection will be prioritized. Then the program will be open to others if they had their initial shots at least eight months earlier; first shots of the vaccines will continue to be available to those who haven’t started the process.

“You want to stay ahead of the virus,” White House medical adviser Anthony  Fauci said, according to the Washington Post.

Are the rules the same for all three vaccines now in use? No. The HHS announcement Wednesday applied to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, previously considered to be complete after two doses. The agency said it is still studying data on the single-shot Johnson & Johnson formula, but a second, or booster shot, is likely to be recommended for that vaccine as well.

Where can I get my booster shot when it’s my turn? Plans for the state delivery of booster shots are pending, but a number of county-run vaccination clinics, including operations in Burlington, Hudson and Gloucester counties, have already announced they have third shots available for those in need. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that severely immunocompromised individuals should immediately get a booster shot, or third dose, since their bodies do not always build enough immunity in response to the second dose. In addition, HHS said Wednesday that the booster-shot program would include a coordinated effort to provide the shots to those in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, similar to how the initial doses were distributed for these groups in January.

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