NYC Reports Ample Supply For COVID Vaccine Boosters—But Are They Necessary?

New York City is ready to make COVID-19 vaccine booster shots available next month in accordance with a proposal announced Wednesday by the federal government.

The current plan involves third doses for previous recipients of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines. U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said individuals who received their second doses eight months ago would be first in line on a rolling basis.

At his daily press briefing, Mayor Bill de Blasio and health officials assured New Yorkers that the city would have more than enough doses beginning on September 20th, the proposed start date for the rollout. The overall plan still needs to be ratified by the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Currently, the New York City Department of Health has 750,000 doses with the ability to order more quickly, according to Dr. Ted Long, a senior official at the city’s public hospital network who is also head of New York City’s Test and Trace Corps.

Similar to the initial rollout last December, priority would be given to health care and nursing home workers as well as senior citizens. Immunocompromised people became eligible for booster shots last week, but at least one million Americans had already obtained the extra shots through unofficial requests before the policy switch.

“We have been stockpiling vaccines knowing this was likely,” Mayor de Blasio said, adding, “definitely, we have both the vaccine and the ability to deliver it.”

The federal decision was made following multiple studies conducted at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and by health researchers in various states. Reports published Wednesday show that the vaccine effectiveness starts strong against general infections but wanes over time. A New York study found the chances of this protection dropped from 92% to 80% this spring as the delta variant began to rise, while a nationwide study of elderly, nursing home residents found a decline 74% to 53% over the course of March to early August.

Similarly, a national investigation showed near-absolute protection against severe illness early on after vaccination, akin to what’s been observed in clinical trials and real-world studies. But CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said that ongoing tracking of 4,000 health care workers, first responders and other frontline workers suggests the vaccine effectiveness is dropping against both general infections and symptomatic disease.

“From 92% prior to delta to 64% with delta,” Walensky said of the preliminary data, which are current as of August 6th. “Notably, this analysis did not show a difference over time, which suggests effectiveness is also decreased against Delta, independent of when you were vaccinated.”

Walensky added that more data would be released next week.

“Even though our vaccines are currently working well to prevent hospitalizations, we are seeing concerning evidence of waning vaccine effectiveness over time and against the Delta variant,” she said. “Additionally, reports from our international colleagues, including Israel, suggest increased risk of severe disease amongst those vaccinated early. Given this body of evidence, we are concerned that the current strong protection against severe infection, hospitalization, and death could decrease in the months ahead.”

Federal health officials have not announced a booster plan for those who received the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, though Surgeon General Murthy tweeted that one would likely arrive. More data needs to be gathered before a recommendation is made, given Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot was approved in March 2021 after its competitors and faced manufacturing delays.

During the mayor’s press conference, health officials argued that the city had established a strong infrastructure for vaccinations. Long cited New York City’s at-home vaccination program as well as more than 30 mobile clinics. “We’re going to be ready for September 20th,” he said.

Dr. Jay Varma, a senior public health adviser to Mayor de Blasio, added that the supply would be ample so that the city would not be forced to choose between giving out first shots and boosters. “Here in New York City, that’s not a choice, that’s not going to be problem,” he said.

But not all experts agree with the federal government’s plan to distribute booster shots to the broader population.

Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious disease specialist at Bellevue Hospital Center and a former public health adviser to President Biden, voiced her objection to the New York Times and later, on Twitter.

“I do not understand the urgency of giving the general population additional doses of COVID vaccine at this time,” she tweeted, as part of a thread that outlined her concerns.

She said the evidence so far only supports giving boosters to those who are immunocompromised, nursing home residents, and individuals over the age of 80.

News that a vaccine booster would become available next month comes as the city is still forging ahead with a mix of mandates and incentives to convince more residents to get their first shot. To date, only 57% of New York City residents are fully immunized against the virus.

On Tuesday, New York City began requiring proof of vaccination for indoor activities at a variety of food and entertainment establishments, including restaurants and bars, gyms, and museums.

In advance of the first day of school on September 13th, Mayor de Blasio announced on Wednesday a public awareness campaign to get children older than 12 vaccinated. The city has already made 250,000 calls to parents and launched an ad campaign in eight languages.

New York City has a list of vaccine requirements for public school students, but it does not include the coronavirus vaccine.

The mayor said that so far 56% of New Yorkers between 12 and 17—or almost 300,000 city adolescents—have been vaccinated against the virus. The data does not distinguish between those attending public or private schools. Prior to the pandemic, roughly 1 million students were enrolled in the city’s public school system.

“This is a crucial moment,” de Blasio said, noting that a vaccine for those under 12 is also expected to receive emergency federal approval in the fall.

Teachers, like other city employees, must get vaccinated or face weekly testing by mid-September. Asked about a absolute mandate for teachers without a testing alternative, de Blasio said he was in conversations with the teachers’ union but declined to say whether he was in favor of such a policy. Both Los Angeles and Chicago, respectively the second and third largest school districts in the country, are requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for teachers.