COVID-19 vaccines are prepared for administration at the Delta Flight Museum mass vaccination site, Feb. 22, 2021. Cpl. Isaiah Matthews / U.S. Army National Guard.

Thousands of North Carolinians who received two doses of the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine at least six months ago are now eligible for a third booster dose.

Rochelle Walensky, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director, said two groups “should” get the third dose: individuals 65 and older; and individuals 50-64 with underlying medical conditions. Two additional groups — individuals 18-64 with underlying conditions and those who have increased risk from occupational or institutional settings— “may” get the shot, according to her recommendation. 

“At CDC, we are tasked with analyzing complex, often imperfect data to make concrete recommendations that optimize health,” Walensky said. “In a pandemic, even with uncertainty, we must take actions that we anticipate will do the greatest good.”

Her directive, which came late Thursday night, incorporated some of the recommendations of the CDC advisory committee but overrode its recommendation not to vaccinate 18- to 64-year-olds with increased occupational or institutional risk.

Some members of the committee expressed concern that the last group would be too broadly interpreted and potentially hinder the ability of the other groups to get a shot immediately. 

Walensky said her decision “aligns with the FDA’s booster authorization and makes these groups eligible for a booster shot.” 

Earlier this week, the FDA approved an Emergency Use Authorization for three groups: 

  • Individuals 65 and older. 
  • Individuals 18-64 who are at high risk of severe COVID-19.
  • Individuals 18-64 whose frequent institutional or occupational exposure puts them at high risk of serious complications of COVID-19, including severe COVID-19.

Prior to the authorization, an FDA advisory committee voted against recommending the third dose for all Pfizer recipients, opting instead to recommend boosters only for older and vulnerable subgroups. 

Pfizer recipients who want a third dose must have completed the two-dose regimen at least six months prior to the booster. According to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, 1,012,437 North Carolinians received two doses of Pfizer by the end of March, which would be the approximate time frame for a six-month cutoff. 

Some North Carolina Pfizer recipients already received a third dose as members of the immunocompromised group who have been eligible for a booster since mid-August. As of Sept. 13, state and federal advisers had administered 72,590 total additional doses in North Carolina, according to DHHS. 

Nationally, more than 70% of current vaccine administration occurs at pharmacies, according to a report of the CDC committee. Walgreens will begin scheduling booster vaccination appointments on Saturday. According to CVS’ website, it also is preparing to schedule booster appointments.

Recipients may go to any provider for a booster. “There is no need for people to go back to the location where they received their original vaccines — most COVID-19 vaccination locations can provide Pfizer boosters,” according to a DHHS press release.

Laura Lee / Carolina Public Press

Focus continues on unvaccinated

Members of both the FDA and CDC committees expressed concern that while boosters might help a small portion of the population, unvaccinated people remain the biggest concern.

Of North Carolinians 12 and older, 61% are fully vaccinated, but vaccine rates among younger populations remain lower. 

At a press conference Wednesday, Gov. Roy Cooper reiterated that fully vaccinated people have “great protection” against the virus and cautioned that booster discussions should not “obscure that fact that we are all much safer with the vaccine.”

The new case rate began to show signs of decline this week, according to DHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen. The hospitalization rate, which had increased over the last several weeks, began leveling this week. 

While the numbers are improving, Cohen emphasized the need for unvaccinated people to get the shot and described the purpose of a booster as an extension of the vaccine’s function over time. 

“A booster shot is meant to extend the benefits of the vaccine, but they start with having benefits from those original vaccines that we and many, many millions of North Carolinians have gotten,” she said Wednesday.

Vaccines are available for free at locations across the state. People who need at-home vaccination or transportation to a vaccine site may find assistance at the DHHS website.

Recipients of the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are not yet eligible for booster doses.

“We will also evaluate with similar urgency available data in the coming weeks to swiftly make additional recommendations for other populations or people who got the Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccines,” the CDC press release said.

Interested individuals in North Carolina can sign up to receive updates from the DHHS when boosters become available.

Editor’s note: This story originally published at 1:30 pm and was updated at 4:30 pm to reflect additional guidance from DHHS.

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Laura Lee is the former news editor at Carolina Public Press.