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FDA expands Pfizer COVID booster, opens extra dose to age 16

A health care worker fills a syringe with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at the American Museum of Natural History in New York earlier this year.
Mary Altaffer AP
A health care worker fills a syringe with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at the American Museum of Natural History in New York earlier this year.

The U.S. is expanding COVID-19 boosters, ruling that 16- and 17-year-olds can get a third dose of Pfizer’s vaccine.

The U.S. and many other nations already were urging adults to get booster shots to pump up immunity that can wane months after vaccination, calls that intensified with the discovery of the worrisome new omicron variant.

On Thursday, the Food and Drug Administration gave emergency authorization for 16- and 17-year-olds to get a third dose of the vaccine made by Pfizer and its partner BioNTech -- if it’s been six months since their last shot.

“Vaccination and getting a booster when eligible, along with other preventive measures like masking and avoiding large crowds and poorly ventilated spaces, remain our most effective methods for fighting COVID-19,” Dr. Janet Woodcock, acting FDA commissioner, said in a statement.

FDA expands Pfizer COVID booster, opens extra dose to age 16

There's one more step: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention must formally recommend the boosters for this age group and a decision is expected soon.

The Pfizer vaccine is the only option in the U.S. for anyone younger than 18, either for initial vaccination or for use as a booster. It’s not yet clear if or when teens younger than 16 might need a third Pfizer dose.

“The booster vaccination increases the level of immunity and dramatically improves protection against COVID-19 in all age groups studied so far,” BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin said in a statement.

The San Diego Unified School District has created more options for people to get vaccinated. The district is in its second week of a partnership with SHARP Healthcare to provide pop-up vaccination clinics at local school sites. The clinics are open to anyone in the community, staff, families and students.

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Mike Damron
Candace Groesbeck with her two children James, 11, and Elinor, 6, at Point Loma High School, December 9, 2021

Thursday there was a pop-up clinic at Point Loma High School. Candace Groesbeck brought her two youngest children to get their second doses of the Pfizer vaccine. She is already fully vaccinated and boostered. She told KPBS News, “I have an older son who is 14 who also was vaccinated about six months ago and I would have him have a booster for sure if it were offered.”

San Diego Unified will continue to partner with SHARP Healthcare for more pop up clinics through late January. That’s when the district’s mandate requires all eligible students 16 and up to be fully vaccinated in order to attend in-person classes. A booster is not part of that mandate.

11-year-old James Groesbeck doesn't mind the shots or maybe someday getting a booster if it will stop COVID. He said, “You don’t want it of course. It’s like you don’t want to get the flu or anything. This is a good idea so we can end the pandemic and don’t have to wear masks anymore.”

Sharp will vaccinate anyone 5 years of age and older at the pop up clinics. Students who are over the age of 11 and attend the hosting school may be vaccinated without a parent present if they have a signed consent form. Students 18 and younger from visiting schools and all students 11 and younger must have a parent present to get vaccinated.

6 year old Elinor Groesbeck has some advice for kids who might be afraid of getting the vaccination shot. “It’s okay to be afraid, just get it, so you don’t have to get it later,” the first grader said.

Appointments are encouraged for the SHARP clinics but not mandatory. For appointments and pop up locations go to myturn.ca.gov

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Mike Damron
SHARP Healthcare 'pop up' clinic at Point Loma High School, December 9, 2021

Vaccinations for children as young as 5 just began last month, using special low-dose Pfizer shots. By this week, about 5 million 5- to 11-year-olds had gotten a first dose.

The extra-contagious delta variant is causing nearly all COVID-19 infections in the U.S., and in much of the world. It’s not yet clear how vaccines will hold up against the new and markedly different omicron mutant. But there’s strong evidence that boosters offer a jump in protection against delta-caused infections, currently the biggest threat.

Complicating the decision to extend boosters to 16- and 17-year-olds is that the Pfizer shot -- and a similar vaccine made by Moderna -- have been linked to a rare side effect. Called myocarditis, it’s a type of heart inflammation seen mostly in younger men and teen boys.

The FDA said rising COVID-19 cases in the U.S. mean the benefits of boosters greatly outweighed the potential risk from the rare side effect, especially as the coronavirus itself can cause more serious heart inflammation.

Health officials in Israel, which already gives boosters to teens, have said the side effect continues to be rare with third doses.

A U.S. study this week offered additional reassurance. Researchers from children’s hospitals around the country checked medical records and found the rare side effect usually is mild and people recover quickly. The research was published Monday in the journal Circulation.