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The FDA is not expanding eligibility for 2nd COVID boosters

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Food and Drug Administration's decision not to expand eligibility for second COVID-19 boosters this summer has left younger adults in limbo, and many are frustrated. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has that story.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Erin Bryant has been anxiously waiting to get her second booster, mostly because her 6-year-old son has special needs, and she can't afford to be out of commission with COVID.

ERIN BRYANT: I definitely want to get the shot - the booster - because I want to be able to take care of him. And if I get sick, then I wouldn't be able to care for him.

STEIN: Problem is, Bryant, who lives in Roanoke, Va., is 43. Only people who are 50 or older or have weak immune systems are eligible for fourth shots - second boosters. But it's been more than seven months since she got her first booster. Her immunity has been fading, and everyone around her seems to be catching the virus in the latest surge.

BRYANT: Yes. I'm worried about getting the other variant that's rampant right now. I just - I know that I can't be down for more than a day at most.

STEIN: But the FDA just decided against allowing all younger adults to get second boosters because it's focusing instead on working to make the next generation of boosters available sooner, hopefully in September.

BRYANT: I think that was the wrong decision to make. I think it should be up to the individual person. It should be their decision, not the FDA. I really think that it should be a person's individual choice.

STEIN: Bryant isn't alone. Jessica Herring agrees. She's 33 and lives in Upper Marlboro, Md. It's been eight months since her first booster, too, and she really wanted to get another one before her sister's wedding this weekend.

JESSICA HERRING: I've tried twice and have been turned away both times because I've been ineligible.

STEIN: Herring says it's really frustrating, especially when vaccine is being thrown away because so many eligible people aren't getting the shots.

HERRING: I want that extra protection. I feel like a booster would help.

STEIN: The decision sparked an intense debate inside the Biden administration. Some top federal health officials pushed for opening up boosters now to protect people against the highly contagious BA.5 omicron subvariant driving the latest surge. And some outside experts agree. Here's Dr. Robert Wachter at the University of California, San Francisco.

ROBERT WACHTER: The idea that I should wait and remain vulnerable when the case rate is very, very high - people have thrown caution to the wind. There are very few masks to be seen anymore. It just means we're exposing, you know, tens of millions of people to several months of additional vulnerability.

STEIN: Especially when big questions remain about whether the new boosters will be all that much better or actually end up becoming available by September. But others say most younger, otherwise healthy people are still well-protected against getting really sick from the two or three doses they already got. And getting another shot now might interfere with getting possibly stronger protection from the new, hopefully longer-lasting boosters coming in the fall that target the omicron variant. Here's Dr. Carlos del Rio at Emory University.

CARLOS DEL RIO: If you get a vaccine right now, the concern is that you will not respond as well when you get another vaccine so close to this one. You have to have some time between doses of vaccines. So getting two vaccines too close to each other may actually cancel the impact of the second vaccine. In other words, there's more risk than benefit of getting another booster right now.

STEIN: For her part, Jessica Herring would be willing to take that risk to get protected sooner.

HERRING: I realize that, as a healthy, younger person, if I were to get it, it's probably not going to be, you know, a severe outcome. I'm probably not going to end up in the hospital. But there are still so many things that we don't know and studies that are coming out about just the lasting effects that even mild illness can have that's quite honestly frightening.

STEIN: So she's going to mask up as much as she can at her sister's wedding and will get one of the new boosters as soon as she can. Rob Stein, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.