AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Today the CDC issued an official recommendation that some people with weakened immune systems need an additional COVID-19 vaccine dose if they have had either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines. The CDC says that with the delta variant surging, the additional shots could, quote, "help prevent serious and possibly life-threatening COVID-19 cases." NPR's Pien Huang joins us now to discuss.
PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.
CHANG: So who exactly are they recommending should get this additional COVID shot?
HUANG: This is a limited recommendation. It's only for moderately to severely immunocompromised people ages 12 and up. Here's Dr. Kathleen Dooling from the CDC explaining why.
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KATHLEEN DOOLING: Immunocompromised people are more likely to get severely ill from COVID-19. They are at higher risk for prolonged SARS-COV-2 infection and shedding and viral evolution during the infection and treatment.
HUANG: In many cases, their bodies didn't have strong immune responses to the first course of COVID-19 vaccines. Studies have found that they account for around 40% of hospitalized breakthrough cases. The CDC says this recommendation affects under 3% of the U.S. population - around 7 million people in total. These are individuals who have had organ transplants, who are undergoing kidney dialysis or are on medications or treatments that suppress their immune systems. The agency specified that this is not for the general population in long-term care facilities or people with diabetes or heart disease. The vaccines have worked as intended in these groups.
And the other thing to note is that this only applies to people who got a two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. Unfortunately, the CDC says they don't have data that supports giving more shots to people who got the J&J vaccine. But they're working on it, and they expect to have thoughts on this very soon.
CHANG: OK, so does this mean that everyone out there who has an immune system that's either moderately or severely compromised should just go out and get that third shot now?
HUANG: Well, they can now that it's authorized, and the CDC says that the rollout is being organized as we speak. But health experts say it should be a decision that each person makes with input from their doctors. There are many different reasons people are immunosuppressed. It's often a combination of their age, their medical conditions, what treatments and drugs that they're taking. And while studies show that a third vaccine dose can boost antibody responses in some people, it's not universally guaranteed to work. Here's the CDC's Dr. Dooling again.
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DOOLING: Immunocompromised people should continue to wear a mask, stay six feet apart from others they don't live with and avoid crowds and poorly ventilated indoor spaces until advised otherwise by their health care provider.
HUANG: Another critical layer of protection which the FDA and CDC both emphasized is that anyone who's hanging out with immunocompromised people should be fully vaccinated.
CHANG: All right, so where can people who do qualify for this third shot actually get this third shot?
HUANG: It looks like it's going to be available at any vaccine site that's offering Pfizer and Moderna shots. The CDC says safety monitoring systems are getting ready to record a third shot. Medicare announced that it will pay for those shots for its patients who qualify. And while people are encouraged to get medical advice, a doctor's note will not be required. A person just needs to inform the staff that they're moderately to severely immunocompromised. Now, for people that are not seriously immunocompromised, health officials say you do not need a booster shot now. The evidence shows that the recommended one- or two-dose COVID vaccines are still protecting most people very well from getting a bad case of COVID.
CHANG: That is NPR's Pien Huang.
Thank you, Pien.
HUANG: Thanks for having me.
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