Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky on Friday endorsed COVID-19 vaccine booster shots for millions of Americans at risk for severe infection, clearing the way for more people to get a third dose of Pfizer's vaccine.
Walensky also went further than the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices and recommended boosters to essential workers.
"As CDC Director, it is my job to recognize where our actions can have the greatest impact," Walensky said in a statement. "At CDC, we are tasked with analyzing complex, often imperfect data to make concrete recommendations that optimize health. In a pandemic, even with uncertainty, we must take actions that we anticipate will do the greatest good."
Officially, the new CDC guidance released Friday says that people aged 65 and older and those who live in long-term care facilities, as well as people aged 50 to 64 with an underlying medical condition "should" seek out a third dose of the Pfizer vaccine six months after their final shot. In addition, people aged 18-49 who have underlying medical conditions and anyone who is at an increased risk for COVID-19 because of their jobs "may" seek a booster six months after their second shot.
According to Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure or kidney disease are among the underlying medical conditions that would qualify a person for a booster shot.
Walensky's guidance came less than a day after the advisory panel recommended boosters to people aged 64 and older, those in long-term care facilities and those with underlying health conditions.
In a close vote Thursday, the ACIP chose not to recommend the booster shots to essential workers. Walensky said during a briefing of the White House COVID-19 response team that she listened to both sides carefully and made her own decision on what she called a "scientific close call."
"I must do what I can to protect the health of people across this nation," she said.
Walensky's guidance is consistent with the Food and Drug Administration, which updated its guidance on Wednesday to say that those in jobs that present an increased risk for COVID-19 infection should be eligible for a booster.
"The FDA amended the EUA for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine to allow for a booster dose in certain populations such as health care workers, teachers and day care staff, grocery workers and those in homeless shelters or prisons, among others," said acting FDA commissioner Dr. Janet Woodcock.
White House COVID-19 response team coordinator Jeff Zients said that 20 million Americans are now eligible to get a booster shot and can do so beginning Friday.
"We are ready to get shots in arms right away," Zients said.
He added that some states are preparing to re-open mass vaccination sites and that pharmacy chains are preparing to ramp up capacity to meet a surge in demand.
Friday's guidance only affects those who have received the Pfizer vaccine. Officials say guidance for those who received the Moderna vaccine will likely come in the coming weeks.
The FDA and CDC have already approved booster shots for those who have received mRNA vaccines and who are immunocompromised. That guidance was released in August.
In remarks from the White House Friday, President Joe Biden encouraged those who are eligible to see out a booster shot, noting that the U.S. has the tools at its disposal to end the pandemic.
Biden added that because he is eligible, he would soon be getting a booster shot though he wasn't exactly sure when he would be able to get it.
"Hard to acknowledge I'm over 65, but I'll be getting my booster shot," Biden said.
He also encouraged Americans who got the Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccines to "wait their turn in line," noting that those who are vaccinated still gave a "high degree of protection" against the virus.
"I'm moving forward with vaccine requirements wherever I can," Biden said.
Finally, Biden encouraged the 70 million Americans who still have not gotten a shot to seek out a vaccination, saying that the "refusal to not get vaccinated has cost all of us."