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What’s it mean to be ‘fully vaccinated’? With omicron, CDC may change the definition


Today, 204 million people in the US are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That means they’ve received the two primary shots of the Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine or one of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. But a growing body of evidence suggests to protect against the omicron variant, you need a Moderna or Pfizer booster shot, too.

“Just being vaccinated with two doses may not be enough,” Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said on CNBC on Monday.

As the omicron variant spreads quickly through the US — now accounting for about 73% of new infections — health officials and other organizations are discussing what it means to be “fully vaccinated.”

“We’re looking into the definition right now,” Walensky said during a White House briefing on Wednesday on changing how it defines “fully vaccinated. “That evaluation is currently underway,” she said. “But to be very clear, our recommendations are to get boosted.”

Some colleges aren’t waiting for public health agencies to decide, however. On Nov. 23, Wesleyan University in Connecticut became the first college to make boosters mandatory for students, starting in 2022. Other northeastern colleges have followed suit in recent weeks, including Syracuse University, Smith College, and New York University. A list of colleges requiring boosters shots can be found at BestColleges.

Omicron, with its ability to infect those who are fully vaccinated, is forcing health officials to reexamine what it means to be “fully vaccinated.” Here’s what we know today about why the CDC may change the definition from two shots to three. For more, where’s the latest on the Moderna booster shots, what you need to know about the Pfizer antiviral pill and how to pick between the vaccine boosters.

Can you get COVID if you are fully vaccinated or receive a booster?

While two doses of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine combined with a booster shot doesn’t provide complete protection from a COVID-19 infection, the vaccines offer a sturdy defense against catching the virus and suffering serious illness. Walensky on Wednesday said an unvaccinated person has a 10 times higher risk of testing positive for COVID-19 and a 20 times greater risk of dying when compared with those who are vaccinated and boosted.

How many COVID vaccine doses do you need to be considered ‘fully vaccinated’?

According to the CDC, you’re fully vaccinated two weeks after you receive the second dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine, or two weeks after a single dose of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine.

The CDC also considers you fully vaccinated if you received any single-dose vaccine listed for emergency use by the World Health Organization or any combination of the two-dose vaccines approved by the Food and Drug Administration or listed by the WHO for emergency use.

Why would the definition of ‘fully vaccinated’ change from two doses of the mRNA vaccines to three?

This month, as preliminary studies showed omicron’s ability to infect those who are considered fully vaccinated, the definition began shifting, if not formally, then practically, from two doses of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID vaccine to three.

“As far as I’m concerned — I make it very clear — if you want to be optimally protected, get boosted,” Fauci said Sunday on CNN’s State of the Union, when asked if three shots will become the standard.

Robert Wachter, chair of the University of California, San Francisco’s department of medicine, said he thinks the definition change is coming soon. “It’s increasingly clear that if you have three shots, you’re in pretty good shape,” Wachter said during an online discussion about COVID-19 hosted by the San Francisco Chronicle on Dec. 10.

“I think we will stop calling people with two shots fully vaccinated within a week or two,” he said. “Omicron is going to make that case quite vividly.”

Will we need an omicron-specific booster to guard against the virus?

If two doses of the Moderna or Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine are not enough to guard against omicron, would we need a variant-specific booster to restore protection? According to Fauci, no. “At this point, there is no need for a variant-specific booster,” Fauci said on Wednesday.

But getting from the two-dose definition to three will take work. The CDC says more than 204 million people right now are “fully vaccinated” with the Moderna, Pfizer or Johnson & Johnson vaccines. That’s 61% percent of the total US population. However, 60 million in the US have received a booster — just under 30% percent of the population. “That’s why getting more Americans vaccinated and boosted is central to the president’s plan to fight COVID and confront omicron this winter,” said Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, during Wednesday’s White House briefing.

What about if you got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine?

This week, the CDC recommended people get one of the mRNA vaccines — Moderna’s or Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine  — instead of Johnson & Johnson’s. The recommendation came a few days after a preliminary study out of South Africa suggested the Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine may produce “virtually no antibody protection,” against omicron, Bloomberg News reported.

CNET reached out to Johnson & Johnson for a comment but didn’t immediately get a response.

What happens next?

Vaccine makers are already pushing for three doses as the new standard. “Although two doses of the vaccine may still offer protection against severe disease caused by the omicron strain, it’s clear from these preliminary data that protection is improved with a third dose of our vaccine,” Pfizer Chairman Albert Bourla said in a statement on early results about the Pfizer vaccine’s continued effectiveness.

The next step would be for the CDC to change its definition of what it means to be “fully vaccinated.” CNET reached out to the CDC for a comment but didn’t immediately get a response.

For more, here’s what we know about the omicron variant and how the new mutation compares with delta. And here’s how to store your vaccine card on your phone.

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