LOWELL — Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, addressing reports that US officials will soon recommend that everyone receive a third shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, said Tuesday that “the federal government is exploring everything we must do to keep Americans safe, including the possibility of boosters.”
“We’re going to be guided by the science. We’re going to make sure that what the federal government does is propelled by what our medical experts are telling us,” Becerra said at the Greater Lawrence Family Health Center, part of a visit to health care facilities in the Merrimack Valley. “Stay tuned.”
So far, the Food and Drug Administration has authorized third shots of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines only for immunocompromised individuals. But administration officials told the New York Times on Monday that a third shot — to be administered eight months after the second — will soon be recommended for the rest of the population and could be offered as soon as mid-September.
Becerra declined to say how the federal government plans to distribute booster shots if they are recommended for hundreds of millions of Americans.
“We will comment more about that when the time comes, but we’re not going to get ahead of the scientists,” he said at a news conference at Lowell General Hospital.
Marylou Sudders, the state’s secretary of Health and Human Services, said Massachusetts officials are prepared to distribute third shots but don’t plan to reopen mass vaccination sites.
“Once the federal government formally puts out boosters, we’re ready,” she said after the press conference. “The CVS and Walmarts will all be providing booster shots, as well as our hospitals and pediatric practices.”
Sudders’ office later clarified that Sudders meant to say Walgreens, not Walmarts.
“At this point, we’re not seeing this [distributed] through mass vaccination sites,” she added. “We’re working it through health care. We have 900 places in Massachusetts where you can get vaccines right now.”
Becerra also spoke about the importance of continuing efforts to boost vaccination rates, both nationwide and in Massachusetts, where 71 percent of the population has received at least one dose of a vaccine.
“It’s great to see the number of people here who have gotten vaccinated, but not everyone is, and everyone who isn’t becomes a potential carrier to someone who could become the next hospital victim and perhaps the next death,” he said.
Becerra noted that there are still Americans who want to be vaccinated but face economic barriers, like the inability to take time off work.
“We’re trying to reach those populations because they don’t deserve to work hard, be at risk, and not be vaccinated,” he said.
Asked about vaccines for children under 12, who are not yet eligible, Becerra said the administration is waiting to hear from scientists. Pfizer and Moderna both plan to submit safety data in the fall from vaccine trials of children and federal officials have speculated that a shot might be approved by year’s end.
“When it comes to our children, especially those tender aged, under 12, when the scientists tell us we’re ready, we’ll launch,” he said. “We hope every parent is ready to get their child vaccinated.”
Asked if he supports mask mandates in schools, Becerra deferred to local authorities.
“Where we can, we will instruct people on how to stay safe and protect each other,” he said, providing air travel as an example. “In other areas, we’ve got to leave it to the governors and the local leadership to make those decisions. Schools are a local decision.”
But “the guidance is very clear,” he added. “There is no doubt what the guidance says when it comes to protecting children, especially those who are under 12 who can’t get vaccinated.”
Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that students and staff — both vaccinated and unvaccinated — wear masks at school this summer and fall.
In Massachusetts, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education recommends that only unvaccinated students and staff wear masks indoors. Governor Charlie Baker told reporters on Monday he is “not considering” changing that recommendation.
At Lowell General, Sudders said there are no plans to change the state’s stance.
“The governor has made it clear that we strongly recommend that kids who are not vaccinated and teachers who are not vaccinated wear masks, but it’s a local decision,” she said.
Throughout his visit, Becerra emphasized that the pandemic is far from over and said vaccinations are key in the continued fight against COVID-19.
“We know that COVID is not done,” he said. “Delta is serious. It is a beast, and we need to get in front of it. Help us with that.”
Camille Caldera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.