RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Which Americans can or should get what booster shots? FDA advisers are scheduled to meet this week to talk about booster shots for the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. And with new cases dropping around the country, Americans are trying to figure out what's safe to do for the coming holidays and what isn't. We've got a whole lot of practical information for you this morning. You're going to want to hear it, and NPR health correspondent Allison Aubrey is our guide. Good morning, Allison.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: Seems like at the moment, things are moving in the right direction if that's OK to say. What do the numbers tell us?
AUBREY: Yeah. New cases are down to about 93,000 a day. That's about a 40% drop since early September. And deaths are averaging about 1,400 a day but are declining, too. Now, given the current trends, Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN many people should be able to enjoy the holidays coming up, starting with Halloween and kids trick or treating.
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ANTHONY FAUCI: You're outdoors for the most part. I mean, this is a time that children love - so I mean, particularly if you're vaccinated. If you're not vaccinated, think about it, that you'll add an extra degree of protection to yourself and your children and your family. But go out there, and enjoy Halloween as well as the other holidays that will be coming up.
AUBREY: He added people should not prematurely declare victory over COVID. He says with more than 60 million people who are eligible but have not yet gotten vaccinated, cases could bounce back. So it's important to remain cautious.
MARTIN: Yes, but a tiny celebration. I mean, my kids have been asking all the time, are we going to get to have Halloween? So I'm glad to be able to tell them yes.
MARTIN: So there is still this big push, obviously, to get people vaccinated with their first shots. At the same time, more people could be eligible for boosters. What's going on this week?
AUBREY: Well, remember; the only people that are eligible for a booster now are those who got the Pfizer vaccine. But...
AUBREY: ...A panel of advisers to the FDA is scheduled to meet Thursday and Friday to deliberate on booster shots of the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. Now, as of now, a booster is recommended for people 65 and up and those at higher risk due to an underlying condition or exposure to the virus. Currently, there's not a recommendation for a booster for healthy younger people. But former CDC Director Tom Frieden told me, ultimately, this could change. Remember, it's only been 10 months since the first COVID vaccine was authorized.
TOM FRIEDEN: Usually it takes a few years to figure out what the right dosage schedule is for a vaccine - how many doses, how large the dose is, what interval between them. It may turn out that the vaccines require three doses for everyone, but we don't know that yet.
AUBREY: So far, it appears that the waning of immunity and the risk of getting a breakthrough infection that leads to hospitalization is much higher in people 65 and up. Meanwhile, this morning, the drug maker Merck said that it has asked the FDA for emergency use authorization of its antiviral COVID pill. Clinical trial data showed that the medication reduced the risk of hospitalization by about 50% in patients newly diagnosed with COVID.
MARTIN: Allison, can you say more about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and potential booster? I mean, this was the vaccine that was always exceptional 'cause it was just one shot, right?
AUBREY: That's right. I mean, from the start it's been known that the J&J shot is somewhat less effective compared to the Moderna and Pfizer shots. And the overall effectiveness of the vaccines has dropped in recent months. Now, some doctors say they've seen this in all age groups with Johnson & Johnson vaccine, not just in older people. So it is possible this week, Rachel, that advisers could recommend another dose to a broader group. The company's data shows a second dose of its vaccine does boost protection. Here's Dr. Frieden again.
FRIEDEN: The data that came out recently from Johnson & Johnson was quite encouraging about a second dose. That bumped what was already a good vaccine to become really an excellent, protective vaccine. So I anticipate that a second dose of the J&J vaccine will be approved.
AUBREY: And this could happen fairly quickly after the advisers meet. The CDC is expected to weigh in with a recommendation next week.
MARTIN: All right. Another thing a lot of people are waiting for - a vaccine for kids ages 5...
MARTIN: ...Through 11, up to 12. When is a decision expected?
AUBREY: You know, FDA advisers are scheduled to meet October 26. I spoke to Josh Sharfstein of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He is a pediatrician by training. He says it may seem like this is taking a very long time to reach a decision. But there is good reason for this, he says. They've got to weigh the benefits of protecting kids against the virus with the risks. And that's what the clinical trials were set up to do.
JOSHUA SHARFSTEIN: We're going to see the FDA's evaluation of the data provided by the company as well as a discussion with independent experts about what it means. So it's really important to have this pause and a really thorough discussion of what makes the most sense for kids.
AUBREY: Of course, if the safety and efficacy look good and it's authorized, there is wide agreement that this will be beneficial in protecting kids.
MARTIN: I wanted to ask you, Allison, about at-home COVID tests. We, over the long weekend, went to visit friends in North Carolina. And all of us decided to do these at-home COVID tests beforehand. I found some easily at my local pharmacy, but our friends had to drive around to, like, multiple places because each...
MARTIN: ...Had run out of these tests. Are there plans to...
MARTIN: ...Boost supplies?
AUBREY: Yeah. The FDA approved another new rapid at-home test last week. And the Biden administration announced an additional $1 billion allocation to purchase millions of tests in response to this ongoing shortage that you saw. Now, these are over-the-counter swab tests, such as the Abbott BinaxNOW test. You can buy them at the pharmacy, as you did, or online. They test for antigens or proteins on the surface of the virus and can provide fairly reliable results in 15 minutes, especially in people who are symptomatic. Here is White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeffrey Zients, who spoke at a briefing.
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JEFFREY ZIENTS: This means companies will be able to expand production of tests even further with tens of millions more tests coming to market over the course of the next 30 days.
AUBREY: So by Thanksgiving, there should be more supply, which may give people reassurance if they're traveling and gathering. Regarding the BinaxNOW tests, there are two tests in each package, and the recommendation is to use both tests. So test two times over three days with 36 hours in between the tests.
MARTIN: All right. So October is typically flu shot month. A lot of hospitals are preparing for the possibility that they could have both COVID and flu patients this winter. Can you just talk a little bit about that concern?
AUBREY: Yeah. I mean, it's kind of too early to anticipate what kind of flu season it will be. But CDC Director Walensky is urging people to get the flu shot. She says that because flu infections were so low last year, immunity is likely to be diminished. I mean, people tend to forget that the flu can be deadly. Somewhere between 12,000 and 52,000 people die each year from the flu in the U.S.
I spoke to Elaine O'Hara. She heads up the vaccine unit for the vaccine maker Sanofi Pasteur. She told me there are plenty of flu shots available. People just need to go out and get them.
ELAINE O'HARA: We've got some vaccine fatigue, where folks are like, OK, well, I've gone and got my COVID shot. I really don't want to get any more vaccinations. You know, as it gets colder, it could really pose a significant problem.
AUBREY: And it is OK to go out and get a flu shot and a COVID shot or a COVID booster at the same visit, same shot - same time.
MARTIN: NPR's Allison Aubrey, thank you. We appreciate it.
AUBREY: Thank you, Rachel.
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