Rochelle Walensky, the director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), announced early Friday morning that she would sidestep her own agency’s vaccine advisers to recommend coronavirus vaccine booster shots to a larger segment of Americans.
On Thursday, the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommended that an additional round of COVID-19 vaccines should be given to individuals 65 years and older, individuals ages 18 to 64 with underlying medical conditions and residents of long-term health care facilities.
But Walensky went further than those recommendations by including people ages 18 to 64 who are at increased risk of exposure because of their workplaces — individuals like doctors, nurses and caregivers.
ACIP had voted against giving booster shots to frontline workers, but earlier in the week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did recommend boosters for workers who are in situations where their exposure to the virus may be significantly heightened.
“As CDC Director, it is my job to recognize where our actions can have the greatest impact,” Walensky said in a statement seeking to justify her move. “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.”
Walensky’s decision is highly unusual, as it aligns CDC policy with recommendations being made by an agency separate from the one she leads. Yvonne Maldonado, an infectious diseases expert at Stanford University, told The New York Times that she agreed with what Walensky had done, but that it was not something that she expected.
“I am surprised that Dr. Walensky overturned one of the four ACIP votes today, and I believe others will be as well,” Maldonado said.
As a result of Walensky’s decision, boosters will be made available almost immediately in some places. Walgreens announced on Friday that its pharmacies would allow eligible groups to get coronavirus booster vaccine shots as soon as Saturday.
However, the recommendation for booster shots goes against the direction of medical leaders around the world. Earlier this month, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus advised against coronavirus vaccine boosters through at least the end of 2021, saying that vaccines need to be made available to poorer countries before wealthier ones get additional doses.
Currently, the U.S. has fully immunized 54 percent of its population, while the entire continent of Africa has only reached a vaccination rate of 3.5 percent of the population.
“I will not stay silent when companies and countries that control the global supply of vaccines think the world’s poor should be satisfied with leftovers,” Tedros said.
The Biden administration, which has been pushing for booster shots, rejected similar concerns about administering them in the U.S. last month.
“We feel that it’s a false choice and that we can do both,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in August.