ATLANTA - Older and at-risk Americans began rolling up their sleeves Friday for a booster shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
About 60 million Americans meet the eligibility requirements for a third dose, and 20 million of those are now at least 6 months out from their second dose of the vaccine.
The US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy says they are recommending people wait at least 6 months before getting a third shot.
Those who are eligible include those 65 and older, those who have a medical condition, such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, or chronic kidney disease, that raises their risk of severe COVID-19 complications, and those who are at high risk of being exposed to the virus because of where they work or live.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky added the third group late Thursday after a CDC vaccine advisory panel voted narrowly against recommending boosters for those who work or live in higher-risk settings, including medical workers and first responders.
"Had I been in the room and on the committee, I would have voted 'yes,'" Dr. Walensky says. "And, that is reflected in my decision to allow the use of a Pfizer-BioNTech booster dose for those 18 and older at high risk of COVID-19 exposure and transmission because of occupational and institutional exposure."
That group includes healthcare workers, teachers, frontline responders, grocery store workers, and those who live in shelters, prisons, or other congregate settings.
"Our healthcare systems are once again at maximum capacity in parts of the country," Walensky says. "Our teachers are facing uncertainty as they walk into the classroom, and I must do what I can to preserve their health across our nation."
Health officials say people will not have to show any documentation they are eligible for a booster dose.
Booster doses will be offered at up to 80,000 vaccination sites, White House officials say, and will be free.
No ID or insurance will be required.
"Just as before, you can go to vaccines.gov to find some of the thousands of places around the country where you can get a shot," Dr. Murthy says.
With the US averaging nearly 2,000 COVID-19 deaths a day, most in unvaccinated people,
Walensky says vaccinating those who have not yet had their initial shots remains a top priority.
"We will not boost our way out of this pandemic," Dr. Walensky says. "Infections among the unvaccinated continue to fuel this pandemic, resulting in a rising number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths where people are unvaccinated. The most vulnerable are those unvaccinated."
The booster recommendations are only for people who originally received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
The CDC director says they're working as quickly as possible to get the safety data and make a decision on boosters for Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccine recipients.