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Editorial: Much ado about boosters

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Should you get a COVID booster? For weeks, it depended on who you asked and where you live. That was a serious problem.

Last Friday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorsed offering the third shot to all vaccinated adults aged 18 and older. That should help clarify some very confusing directions that had public officials at their wits’ end and saw some governors, Republicans and Democrats, forge their own path forward.

Many Americans were understandably confused by these mixed messages. After all, listening to public health officials and “following the guidance” have been the mantras of this pandemic. But when it came to the booster, those directions were in conflict with one another.

Approval by those two federal agencies clears the way for most Americans to get their booster before the holidays in December.

Focus on the boosters in recent weeks has obscured the most important fact: Ending the pandemic hinges on vaccinating as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. Communities with high vaccination rates are better protected from outbreaks, better insulate their immunocompromised residents and help defend against deadly variants of the disease.

Raising the vaccination rate is urgent with the holidays looming and people making travel plans to spend time with family and friends. Anyone who hasn’t yet received their shots should do so now.

But even as some communities, including some in Hampton Roads, struggled to vaccinate their residents, President Joe Biden announced in August that the United States would soon make booster shots available.

That announcement ran ahead of the CDC and the FDA, which wanted to make sure the science endorsed a third shot for most people. The CDC in September endorsed boosters for some people who had the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, followed in October by a recommendation for those who had the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson shots.

But eligibility was limited to certain people, of certain ages, at different times depending on their most recent vaccination dose. There was no guidance on what shot a person with a Pfizer, Moderna or J&J vaccine should receive. It left Americans to determine for themselves, or in consultation with their doctor, if they qualified.

According to recent reporting by The Washington Post, the Biden administration has spent considerable effort lobbying the CDC to authorized boosters to all vaccinated adults aged 18 and older. The newspaper reported CDC Director Rochelle Walensky wanted to wait for more data before making that call.

The CDC’s delay didn’t stop governors from Colorado, Kansas, Maine and our neighbor West Virginia, among others, from stepping ahead of the CDC and recommending boosters for their vaccinated residents. Suddenly there was different guidance depending on where one lived. Those governors cited rising case numbers and the pending holidays to justify their preemptive decisions — although states with low vaccination rates might do better to focus on getting more people their first dose.

Virginia chose to adhere to CDC guidance and recommended boosters for a limited number of residents. In most cases, that meant people six months past their Pfizer or Modern vaccines and age 65 and older, and people older than 18 at least two months since their J&J shot. Detailed information about vaccines is available at the Virginia Department of Health website.

To some degree, it makes sense that different states would chart their own course on boosters, as they have done on virtually everything during this pandemic. The timeline suggests that President Biden got ahead of the science — unlike his predecessor, who simply ignored it.

But Americans needed clearly communicated information and guidance, not a mishmash of conflicting direction and mixed messages about how to proceed. It left them to wonder how best to protect themselves, their families and their loved ones this holiday.

Hopefully, the guidance issued last Friday will help provide that clarity and offer straightforward direction on how Americans should proceed.

— The Virginian-Pilot & Daily Press

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