‘It’s not too late’: NIH director urges Americans to get vaccinated, discusses boosters, shots for younger children

Published: Sep. 27, 2021 at 6:50 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The director of the National Institutes of Health said while booster shots will move Americans closer to the end of the pandemic, they are not enough to finish it if the 70 million currently unvaccinated Americans, including more than 1.7 million South Carolinians, do not receive the shot in the first place.

“They’re the people who continue to end up in the hospital and the ICU and sadly in the morgue,” Dr. Francis Collins said. “We lost 2,000 every day for the last week. That’s all so preventable.”

Collins said that many Americans remaining unvaccinated pushes the target for herd immunity further away as the virus continues to mutate into strains that spread more easily, including the delta variant.

But the NIH director, who leads the country’s medical research agency, said boosters will help the country progress toward the pandemic’s end by reducing the number of breakthrough cases, especially among older people who are vaccinated.

Last week, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky signed off on making boosters of the Pfizer vaccine available six months after a second dose for Americans age 65 and older, those living at long-term care facilities, people as young as 18 with underlying health conditions, and those at increased risk of infection because of where they work or live. While the CDC’s advisory panel did not include that last group in its recommendation to Walensky, the director took the unusual step to overrule that recommendation and add those Americans in her authorization.

Collins said he believes Walensky made the correct choice.

“I think in the next three to four weeks, we’re going to hear what the recommendations are for the rest of us about boosters for Moderna and for J&J,” he said, adding he also believes data will be available soon regarding “mixing and matching” vaccines — for example, if people can receive the Pfizer vaccine for their first two doses and then a Moderna booster — or if they need to receive shots from the same manufacturer for every dose.

The CEO of Pfizer said the company will be ready to seek approval for its COVID-19 vaccine for younger children in the coming days. The shot is currently available for those as young as 12.

Last week, Pfizer released the data it had collected from studies on the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness in children age 5 to 11, which Collins said, “looks really good.”

But before the shot is available for those children, it first needs to be reviewed and approved by the FDA and CDC, as vaccines for Americans 12 and older were.

“People are saying, ‘Maybe by Halloween,’ and that’s not that far off,” Collins said. “But keep in mind, if it does get approved for 5-to-11-year-olds, it’ll still be a two-dose regimen. You get the first one, you wait three weeks, then you get the second one, and then you’ve got to wait two more weeks before you have the full benefit. So even so, kids who are 5-to-11 aren’t going to be fully immunized until December.”

Because of that timeline, Collins said he advises unvaccinated parents and older siblings to get vaccinated in the meantime to protect those younger children who are still vulnerable.

“Come on America, we can do this,” he said. “We might be a little late in some places, but it’s not too late.”

Once the shot gets approval for younger children, the NIH director said Americans should not have to worry about shortages, as the country experienced earlier in the vaccine rollout.

“I do know that there’s a great deal of confidence that we have enough doses in this country to cover all of the kids who will qualify, all of the adults who haven’t get gotten their first dose — and unfortunately, that’s 70 million people, and if they all came forward tomorrow, that would be great. We’ve got enough doses for them, and the boosters because people are now qualifying for that,” he said.

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