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Time to expand COVID boosters

Elaine Ryan of Uniondale gets her COVID-19 booster

Elaine Ryan of Uniondale gets her COVID-19 booster shot at Kennedy Memorial Park in Hempstead on Oct. 14. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

When New York City officials announced they would make COVID-19 vaccine booster shots available to all adult residents who’d waited long enough since their initial vaccinations, they made a common-sense decision to save lives.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, both expected to meet later this week to consider their booster authorization policies, are likely to follow New York City's lead. Good.

And Nassau and Suffolk counties, so successful at promoting and dispensing the vaccines initially, should encourage residents to boost their protection with the same vigor.

A recent study in Science magazine, assessing Veterans Health Administration data, found vaccine effectiveness against infection among military veterans declined from 88% to 48% between February and October. A CDC study of New York City residents found effectiveness waned from 92% to 75% in two months.

Those studies are in line with others done worldwide, and show boosters are a crucial weapon in this ongoing war.

They also show that the initial courses of vaccinations hold up much better against severe disease and death. In the New York City study, the vaccinations maintained 93% effectiveness against hospitalization; in the veterans study, protection against death was 82% for those under 65 and 72% for those older than 65.

So the boosters are needed more to stop the spread of infection and stymie mild and moderate illness than to prevent death and hospitalization. Preventing the spread is crucial to stifling new variants and keeping COVID in check.

New York City’s change of policy served another purpose, as would a national shift. Both bring rules on boosters in line with practice, as the booster has often been available to anyone in New York, and elsewhere, willing to check a box saying they’re "at risk" and thus eligible.

In Nassau and Suffolk, officials have stuck by state and CDC guidance, officially, but have not made patients verify the "at-risk" status that confers eligibility. Officials now say residents should consider themselves eligible if they simply feel "at risk."

It's incredibly confusing. CDC guidelines now limit the boosters to people over 65 and those with qualifying medical conditions, even as Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to the president, argues the boosters should be available to everyone.

And though the restrictions are rarely if ever enforced, many simply follow rules and won’t seek boosters until authorized. Having the restrictions creates the possibility of selective enforcement, where some seeking boosters are given the shots and others are denied.

About 20% of American adults say they won’t get the vaccine, ever. That means keeping ourselves and our nation safe falls entirely on the shoulders of those willing to take the responsibility.

The rules should make it clear that they can do so, and Nassau and Suffolk should make it easy.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.