Louisianans aged 65 and up and anyone prone to severe illness could qualify for a third shot of the Pfizer COVID vaccine as early as next week now that a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention panel recommends a booster dose.
While it may only be days until those groups can book their appointments, there are still details that need to be ironed at the federal and state level before that can happen.
Following the national conversation around booster shots of the vaccine has been confusing, and at times chaotic, for the general public. The CDC panel’s unanimous recommendation offers some clarity.
The committee recommended elderly Americans and people aged 50 to 64 with underlying medical conditions who received the Pfizer vaccine for their first two doses get a third shot. Most of the panel also recommended boosters for people between 18 and 49 years old with underlying medical conditions, based on individual benefit and risk.
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That decision came a day after the Food and Drug Administration authorized the boosters for older and high-risk recipients of the Pfizer vaccine at least six months after their second injection.
But for now, those groups “should just wait,” advised Dr. Raneesha Ford, the pharmacy director for Baton Rouge General.
“They should still be social distancing, wearing their mask — those same protective measures that we have been communicating out since the beginning of COVID,” Ford said. “Be patient and carry out those protective measures until we receive this additional guidance and approval to provide the Pfizer booster shot.”
The recommendation on the Pfizer boosters came after data showed waning antibody levels roughly half a year after people received their second dose of the vaccine. But Dr. Aldo Russo, regional medical director for Ochsner Baton Rouge, said those who received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine are still at a far lower risk of developing serious complications from a COVID infection than if they were unvaccinated.
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The CDC panel did not rule on whether people who received the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines should receive booster shots, which have not been authorized by the FDA The FDA is expected to take up the question soon.
Local hospitals and clinics across the state are now waiting for CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to approve the recommendation before it becomes official. It’s expected that the committee’s recommendation will be adopted.
From there, the Louisiana Department of Health will review the CDC’s recommendation and set the policies that will govern who can receive a Pfizer booster shot in the state.
The LDH review of the Pfizer booster shot should take a “very short period of time,” spokeswoman Aly Neel said.
“As we learn through this, because it’s an ongoing process of learning, I'm sure that the scientists are going to make the right decisions for our patients,” Russo said.
In the meantime, local clinics and hospitals are gearing up for an influx of patients seeking a third shot of the Pfizer vaccine.
Both Ochsner and BRG said scheduling an appointment for a Pfizer booster will work the same way as it did to get the first two doses.
“We’re handling this just as if it were a regular first shot of the vaccine,” Russo said.
Healthcare facilities around the state have been offering a third dose of the two approved messenger RNA vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna, for severely immunocompromised Louisianans since August. That program differs from the Pfizer recommendations made this week because it only applies to people who have a lagging immune system due to chemotherapy, a recent transplant or some other disease that causes their antibody levels to not rise to that of a healthy person’s after two doses.
Those third doses are to be injected at least four weeks after the second dose is administered, unlike the CDC approval for Pfizer recipients over the age of 65, who must wait at least 6 months.
The boosters are arriving after months of back-and-forth between President Joe Biden’s administration and health officials and advisors.
Biden said in August that his administration would roll out boosters by mid-September, a move that was criticized because some experts said there wasn’t enough data.
The World Health Organization also pushed back against the announcement because the U.S. has a surplus supply of vaccines, while much of the world’s population struggles to get their first shot.
Biden’s program was bogged down by federal regulators, and the mixed messaging led to “confusion” among the general public, Russo said.
“The FDA is your source of information, along with the CDC,” he explained. “That will give you some guidelines on how to handle this.”