SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
Booster shots for COVID-19 are coming to a pharmacy near you. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has just endorsed recommendations from her advisory committee. She described it as an example of the CDC's fundamental commitment to protect as many people as possible from COVID-19. This paves the way for Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccine recipients to get additional doses to boost their protection. NPR health reporter Pien Huang has been following it all and is here to discuss with us.
PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Hey, Sarah.
MCCAMMON: OK, so what has happened today?
HUANG: Well, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky has officially signed off on booster shots for the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. She endorsed the recommendations that came from the CDC's vaccine advisory committee, which met earlier today. The Moderna booster shot will be available to limited groups, while an additional shot is advised for everyone who got J&J. So now boosters can be given for all three COVID vaccines available in the U.S. That's Pfizer, Moderna and J&J.
MCCAMMON: And who's going to be eligible for these booster shots?
HUANG: Well, for Pfizer and Moderna recipients, a booster shot is recommended six months after the last shot for specific groups of people - those 65 and older, those with underlying health conditions and those whose jobs or living situations expose them to COVID regularly. That's because the vaccine seems to be holding steady against severe disease and most healthy, low-risk people. The J&J vaccine has not been as effective as the others, so the CDC's saying that everyone who got one should get a boost at least two months later. And people can now choose to get a different brand as a booster. The FDA and CDC are now officially allowing that.
MCCAMMON: Yeah, there's been a lot of talk about mixing vaccines. Is there an advantage to doing that?
HUANG: There are some potential advantages for getting a different vaccine. For someone who got a J&J shot, some studies have shown that following it with a Pfizer or Moderna boost might increase the immune response more than a second shot of the same. There's also safety because there are different risks associated with the different vaccines. For women, there's a slight elevated chance of getting severe blood clots from the J&J or Janssen vaccine. And for young men, there's a small risk of getting temporary heart inflammation from the messenger RNA vaccines. That's Pfizer or Moderna. And it also looks like this heart condition is actually more common with the Moderna vaccine than with Pfizer. So Dr. Keipp Talbot, a CDC committee member from the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, says the ability to choose a different booster shot could be really helpful.
HELEN KEIPP TALBOT: It gives those who receive a Janssen, if you're a young woman, to receive a messenger RNA. And if you're a young man who's received the messenger RNA, maybe we switch over to the Janssen.
HUANG: Convenience is another factor. Being able to just bring one kind of vaccine to give boosters to the homebound or people in nursing homes makes it a lot easier to get them out efficiently.
MCCAMMON: All right, so now that the CDC has signed off, can people who qualify for these boosters just go out and get them right away?
HUANG: Essentially, yes, although it might take a minute for the policies on the data collection systems to catch up. But the J&J booster is the same shot that's currently being given out, just like the Pfizer booster. It's slightly more complicated with the Moderna booster, which is a half dose of the original vaccine. Here's Claire Hannan, head of the Association of Immunization Managers.
CLAIRE HANNAN: Sounds easy to just give a half-dose - but logistically, it's very difficult.
HUANG: Some of the difficulty comes in tracking the doses. You're also going to need more needles, more protective equipment to give out half-doses of the Moderna booster. And people giving out the jabs need to be trained on how to administer and track a different dose. That could slow the rollout a bit, but Hannan says there are plenty of vaccines and boosters to go around. So with a little patience, everyone who's eligible and wants one should be able to get a booster soon. And the CDC's expert panel stressed over and over today that the most important thing to do to control the pandemic is for people who haven't yet gotten any vaccine to go get one.
MCCAMMON: That is NPR health reporter Pien Huang. Thank you so much, Pien.
HUANG: Thanks for having me.
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