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Health experts implore Americans to get COVID vaccine shots as cases spike

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The CDC is now recommending booster shots of Pfizer's COVID vaccine for 16- and 17-year-olds. The Biden administration's COVID advisers want as many people boosted as possible given the surge in delta cases and, of course, the threat of the even more contagious omicron variant. NPR's Allison Aubrey is here. Allison, good morning.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I'll just remind people that boosters, at first, were for the elderly and people with special conditions. What is the case for giving boosters to 16- and 17-year-olds?

AUBREY: Well, when the FDA announced the emergency use authorization for this age group yesterday, Janet Woodcock, who's the acting commissioner, pointed to the current spread of delta and omicron, as you just mentioned, and said, as people gather with family and friends, vaccination is the best protection we have, including boosters. Now, the FDA's Peter Marks, who was a key person in the authorization process, said that new evidence overall indicates that the vaccine's effectiveness is waning after the second dose. And he said the Pfizer vaccine has been available to 16-year-olds for nearly a year. It's been shown to be safe and effective. And the agency determined that the benefits of a single booster shot for this age group outweigh the risks of myocarditis and other potential rare side effects. So these teens are now eligible and are encouraged to get boosted.

INSKEEP: And there's been so much talk of myocarditis I feel that we need to just note, yes, it has been found in some cases, but it's said to be very few. Is that right?

AUBREY: Very, very rare cases. That's right.

INSKEEP: OK. So let's talk about the situation in which these boosters are being recommended, a surge in coronavirus cases. In a moment, we're going to go to one place that's experiencing that surge. But why don't you give us a kind of audio map of the country? What's going on?

AUBREY: Yeah. Sure. Well, right now, the U.S. is averaging close to 120,000 cases a day all over the country. And that's about a 30% increase compared to just a few weeks ago coming out of the Thanksgiving holiday. If you look at the map, the rise is most notable in parts of the Northeast and the Great Lakes region. As hospitalizations rise, the governors of Maine and New York have called on the National Guard for help.

Just looking here, Michigan, Vermont, Pennsylvania also have high hospitalization rates. And areas of the Southwest, too, including parts of Arizona, New Mexico, they've seen increases in hospital admissions. And, you know, though the threat of omicron looms, right now, 99% of the cases in the U.S. are from delta. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky talked about the situation at a White House briefing earlier this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: We must act in this moment to mobilize together to do what we know works. We have months of study on delta. And all of those data demonstrate that vaccines work. Testing works. Masking works.

AUBREY: The administration says about 7 million booster shots have been given over the last week. And Walensky encouraged everyone who is eligible to get boosted.

INSKEEP: Allison, we keep asking this question. Maybe we've even asked it of you in recent...

AUBREY: Yes.

INSKEEP: ...Days. But we have to keep asking because we learn a little bit more every day. Is it known that, in fact, vaccines do work against the omicron variant?

AUBREY: There are a few preliminary studies out from scientists in South Africa and Germany. They have tested the blood of vaccinated people to see how well the antibodies in the plasma neutralize or fend off omicron. These studies suggest protection is diminished. So scientists say vaccinated people may be vulnerable to breakthrough infections. But here's the key bit of news - the scientists expect that the vaccines will help prevent severe disease and hospitalization. So...

INSKEEP: Oh.

AUBREY: ...That's encouraging - again, preliminary.

INSKEEP: Allison, thanks so much, really appreciate it.

AUBREY: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR health correspondent Allison Aubrey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.