Any New York City adult can now decide for themselves if they meet the criteria for a COVID-19 vaccine booster, health commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi announced Monday.
Chokshi said he had issued a new advisory to vaccine providers as part of a bid to remove barriers for accessing the booster shots. The guidance applies to anyone 18 and older and plays off a current recommendation that permits additional doses for people living or working in high-risk settings.
If a New Yorker expresses this concern, the commissioner doesn’t want them to be denied.
“Clinicians should allow adult patients to determine their own risk of exposure based on their individual circumstances. In practice, this means that providers should not turn a patient away if they request a booster,” Chokshi said at a city hall press briefing on Monday.
Time is now the main restriction for booster shots in New York City. Boosters are permitted two months after a person takes a Johnson & Johnson vaccine or six months after their second jab of Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna.
During his Monday press briefing, Mayor Bill de Blasio acknowledged that his administration was trying to expand the number of residents who could qualify for boosters, saying that the city would “take the broadest interpretation, most inclusive interpretation of who qualifies to ensure that people who want it get it and are not turned away.”
Rising COVID cases and cold weather prompted the shift, Chokshi said. Previously, boosters for the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines were only available to senior citizens, all adults with underlying health conditions and those living or working in high-risk settings, like long-term care facilities and homeless shelters. Johnson & Johnson recipients have been eligible for a booster, regardless of COVID risk, since October.
Those guidelines are still in place at the state and federal levels, setting New York City apart. But New York Gov. Kathy Hochul confirmed her support for the self-directed eligibility decision in a statement Monday afternoon.
“I am strongly encouraging all New Yorkers who live or work in a high-risk setting to get the booster,” Hochul said. “I received the booster, and believe no one who feels they are at risk should be turned away from getting a COVID-19 booster shot.”
Chokshi emphasized that the city’s new guidance is still consistent with those of the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which also consider the risk of exposure, which he said is dependent on where people live and where they work.
By that measure, Dr. Mitchell Katz, the head of the city’s public hospital system, argued that all New York City residents over 18 should qualify for a booster.
“I view all New Yorkers because of the density of our city of being at higher risk,” Katz said.
Out of more than 5 million fully vaccinated adults in New York City, 630,000 have gotten an additional dose of COVID-19 vaccine, according to the latest data. The extra shots have been shown to shore up immunity against infection that can otherwise wane with time.
WNYC/Gothamist contacted the state health department for comment.
Some experts are worried about whether expanding boosters could come with hidden downsides.
Dr. Denis Nash, an epidemiology professor at the City University of New York, said that while boosters might help immunity, community transmission could still stay high if too many people remain vaccine hesitant. The city, he argued, should continue to prioritize shots for the unvaccinated.
“It seems problematic to focus on the haves instead of the have nots,” he said. “Boosters may help reduce community transmission and the public health impact of surges, but we don’t have definitive evidence of this yet.”
Encouraging first and second shots for people ages five and older, he added, “has to be the main focus and goal of public health.”
Fully vaccinated adults are also free to “mix and match” their booster shot, according to CDC guidance. That means you can choose any of the three vaccine varieties for a booster, regardless of which one you got for your original course of doses.
To schedule a booster shot, New Yorkers can visit the city’s COVID-19 and Flu Vaccine Finder or use the online appointment scheduler. Older adults and disabled New Yorkers can get a ride to their appointment by calling 877-VAX-4NYC (877-829-4692). Finally, all New Yorkers have the option of scheduling a house call vaccination using this form.
This story has been updated with commentary from Dr. Denis Nash and a statement from Gov. Hochul.