COVID-19 boosters get a key approval. What we know now

Vaccine mega-sites poised to open as state preps for booster plans
Credit: (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
File photo: A pharmacist prepares a syringe of the Pfizer vaccine for COVID-19.

A federal vaccine panel approved plans Thursday for COVID-19 booster shots to be made available to those over age 65, residents of long-term care and adults of any age who have preexisting conditions that put them at particular risk for severe illness from the disease.

The panel declined to approve the use of third doses for those whose jobs or residence put them at particular risk for infection. The panel is part of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the agency itself must still sign off and provide guidance for the process. However, later Thursday, the FDA director gave final approval to the panel’s recommendation related to seniors and at risk residents of any age. But the director also overruled the panel’s resistance to provide boosters for front-line workers. It’s unclear now what the next steps are in terms of getting boosters to front-line workers.

New Jersey’s plans to reopen at least one COVID-19 vaccination mega-site are temporarily on hold as state leaders await the federal guidance that could enable potentially 1 million or more state residents to receive a booster shot.

New Jersey Department of Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said Monday that as many as 1.1 million New Jerseyans could be eligible to receive a third shot of the Pfizer vaccine by next week, based on separate findings by the Food and Drug Administration, which weighed in last week. Proposals to administer booster shots for Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccines are still under federal review

NJ awaits further CDC guidance

“The Department will direct vaccination partners in the state to begin administering booster doses once [CDC officials] provide further guidance. We will provide updates to the public once eligibility guidance is available,” Persichilli said Monday at one of the Murphy administration’s twice-weekly pandemic media briefings. “We do have supply and we are prepared to give it.”

Persichilli also urged those who have not completed the first round of vaccination to complete their initial dosage or begin the process if they haven’t yet started. More than 1,600 vaccination sites here are offering first shots, Gov. Phil Murphy noted.

The state had initially planned to reopen at least one vaccination mega-site by this week to begin administering boosters to potentially millions of New Jerseyans starting Monday, based on the goals and timeline outlined by President Joe Biden in August. Biden called on federal health officials to approve a booster shot for all adults who received the Pfizer vaccine, with health care workers, elderly residents and others at risk first in line. Of the nearly 5.8 million people fully vaccinated in New Jersey, some 3 million have received the Pfizer shots.

Instead, the FDA recommendation Friday limits boosters to a far smaller group. Here’s what happens next and what it could mean for New Jersey.

Who would qualify for boosters?

An estimated 430,000 individuals older than age 65 who were vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine would be able to get a third shot, based on Friday’s FDA recommendation.

An estimated 670,000 more would be eligible because of their COVID-19 risk, either due to a preexisting condition or because they work in a health care setting. But with the CDC panel’s decision Thursday to not proceed with boosters for those whose jobs put them at risk, it is not clear how many of these New Jerseyans would have access to the shots.

Where and when would people get booster shots?

Boosters would be available for eligible groups starting six months after they receive the last of the first two shots.

State officials said boosters will be accessible at a mix of existing sites, including “strong, active county sites” and reopened mega-sites.

Persichilli said the Gloucester County mega-site is likely to be the first to reopen, once the federal guidance is available.

The state will also be working to coordinate booster doses for homebound individuals who received the Pfizer shots, she said.

When will we know who’s got the green light?

A CDC vaccine advisory panel met Wednesday and Thursday and voted to endorse three out of four proposals, including calls to provide boosters to those over age 65, long-term care residents, and adults whose underlying health conditions put them at risk for severe COVID-19. The panel did not approve a proposal to include in the initial booster plan adults who work in health care or other risky settings, or those who live in congregate settings; the CDC itself will then need to sign off on the panel’s guidance.

Persichilli suggested the state could have this guidance by later this week.

Wait, aren’t boosters already available for some people?

Yes. Federal officials approved the use of booster doses — of both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines — for individuals with seriously compromised immune systems.

Vaccination sites in New Jersey can be located online or by calling 1-855-568-0545.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include new information about the FDA’s approval for the boosters.

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