Health officials stress COVID-19 booster shot before the holidays

Oct. 28, 2021: Gov. Phil Murphy, right, at a clinic for COVID-19 vaccination booster shots in Trenton. (Rich Hundley/NJ Spotlight News)

Oct. 28, 2021: Gov. Phil Murphy, right, at a clinic for COVID-19 vaccination booster shots in Trenton. (Rich Hundley/NJ Spotlight News)

This story originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.

With the federal government’s blessing, public health leaders in New Jersey are urging all adults vaccinated against COVID-19 to get a booster shot in advance of the holidays — especially if they are planning to travel or gather in large groups.

The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Friday that everyone 18 years and older who received Pfizer or Moderna shots at least six months ago is now eligible for a third dose to further boost their immunity. Those who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine were previously cleared for a booster two months after their initial shot.

The CDC’s panel of vaccine experts acknowledged that the previous booster eligibility rules — which limited the shots to seniors and people whose health, work or housing put them at greater COVID-19 risk — led to confusion among health care providers and the public. The new guidelines are designed to simplify the process, which they hope will increase participation, especially among Black and Hispanic individuals who have been less likely to get third shots than white residents in New Jersey and nationwide.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration has been working to increase booster-shot participation, although it stopped short of opening eligibility to all adults in advance of the federal recommendation, a step recently taken by New York City and a growing number of states. But after the CDC’s go-ahead Friday, third shots are now available at hundreds of locations around New Jersey, ranging from large, regional operations like the Gloucester County site in Clayton to hospitals to corner drug stores.

New daily diagnoses on the rise

The news comes as COVID-19 has begun to tick up again nationwide and in New Jersey, where the impact of the virus had been generally diminishing for months. By Friday, new daily diagnoses were up 27% over the previous week, according to the Washington Post tracker, and hospitalizations rose 12%. COVID-19 deaths are still on the decline.

Public health experts note that the initial round of COVID-19 immunizations — two doses a few weeks apart for Pfizer and Moderna, or one shot for the Johnson & Johnson version — provide excellent protection against severe disease and death, which lasts well over time. But minor declines in immunity can still allow the virus to spread, something booster doses can help to reduce.

The approaching holiday season also underscores the need for booster shots, health experts warn, as travel, public festivities and private parties all raise the risk of infection. A survey conducted earlier this month by Monmouth University’s Polling Institute found nearly two out of three Americans plans to return to their prepandemic holiday routines.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Given these parameters and the current trends, Dr. Shereef Elnahal, president and CEO of Newark’s University Hospital, predicted COVID-19 numbers will rise in the weeks and months to come. “The question is, how steep will that increase be and what is the peak,” Elnahal told NJ Spotlight News last week.

‘The increases now are much more blunt’

However, we are unlikely to experience the record numbers seen last year in New Jersey and other states that saw even more dangerous spikes in disease, Elnahal added. “The increases we’re seeing now are much more blunt and that’s because the virus is essentially hitting walls of more vaccinated and boosted people,” he said.

More than 6.2 million New Jerseyans are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and 1 million-plus have received a booster shot, a higher immunization rate than in four out of five states nationwide, state and federal data show. But more than 1.2 million residents have been diagnosed with the virus since March 2020, some 95,400 have been hospitalized and nearly 28,200 have died as a result.

Murphy had been asked about expanding access to boosters last week but said he preferred to wait for the federal go-ahead first. That came after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration decided Friday morning that data provided by the vaccine makers indicated the additional shots were safe and effective. On Friday afternoon, the CDC’s vaccine panel met to review the FDA’s findings and make their own recommendation to make all adults eligible; Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC’s director, signed off on the panel’s recommendation Friday evening.

Get the WHYY app!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal