CDC director partially overrules panel, signs off on boosters

Booster doses of Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine can be administered to potentially tens of millions of people after the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) early Friday morning broke with the recommendations made by a key agency advisory panel.

In an announcement made after midnight Friday, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said anyone between the ages of 18 and 64 who are at increased risk of COVID-19 “exposure and transmission because of occupational or institutional setting” may get a third dose of Pfizer’s vaccine if they want to, based on their risk levels.

The language was deliberately broad; that group could encompass health-care workers, teachers, grocery-store workers and basically any other “front line” worker. Or anyone who says they are a front line worker.

The shots are available at locations where the Pfizer vaccine is already being administered, including pharmacies, health departments, clinics and some doctor’s offices.

The CDC’s guidance aligns with what the Food and Drug Administration authorized on Wednesday. It avoids what was previously conflicting guidance and encompasses a wider population than what the agency’s vaccine advisory panel recommended earlier Thursday.

Walensky defends decision: During a White House briefing Friday, Walensky said she did not overrule the panel, and defended her decision to broaden the recommendation.

“This was a scientific close call. In that situation, it was my call to make,” Walensky said.

The advisory panel had a long discussion, the vote against recommending boosters based on occupation was close. “Had I been in the room and on the committee, I would have voted yes,” Walensky said, and indicated she chose to err on the side of being too broad, rather than too narrow. “It was a decision about providing, rather than withholding access,” she said.

Few limits: Walensky said they are asking people to self attest their eligibility, rather than providing proof such as a doctor’s note. In addition, much of the population has at least one health condition that elevates their risk of severe disease, at least according to CDC’s general list. That means tens of millions of people are likely eligible— despite the fact that both FDA and CDC advisory panels felt there wasn’t much evidence that current protection was waning for anyone other than the older populations.