The updated omicron booster rollout has been a dud. That’s bad news heading into the fall and winter, especially for older Americans most at risk.
Only 7.6 million Americans — less than 4 percent of those eligible — have received the shot so far, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While some recently infected people may be waiting a few months to get boosted, per official recommendations, there doesn’t seem to be much urgency among the public. Two-thirds of adults don’t plan on getting the updated shot anytime soon, according to polling data from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF).
The slow rollout comes as much of the country’s hard-won immunity, from vaccination or infection, is weakening. About half of adults have gotten the original booster, but its protection wanes after six months, and about a quarter of adults remain unvaccinated. As cases and hospitalizations tick up across Western Europe, potentially driven by new, more immune-evasive flavors of omicron, the sluggish booster campaign is leaving Americans — and hospital systems — more vulnerable to a winter wave.
“I would say I’m disappointed, but that’s not quite the right word, because being disappointed implies you had high expectations in the first place,” said Peter Hotez, co-director of Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development. “The messaging has been so muddled.”
Why so sluggish?
The federal government hasn’t launched a robust campaign to get the message out that these boosters will help keep the most vulnerable out of the hospital, said Hotez, in contrast to previous rounds of shots. “The limited data available today is showing that against omicron subvariants, the original booster’s protection against hospitalization seems to go down quite a bit, from 80 to 30 or 40 percent,” he said. The current bivalent boosters, which target multiple strains of covid, should help restore that protection, but that hasn’t been clearly and consistently communicated by public health officials, said Hotez: “Another big mistake was the president saying twice on ‘60 Minutes’ that the pandemic was over.”
The muddled messaging has left many older Americans unsure about whether they need the new booster; nearly 40 percent of those 65 and over have only heard “a little” or “nothing at all” about the updated shots, according to KFF. Just over 40 percent expressed uncertainty over whether they even qualified for the shot. The picture is even worse for those under 65, with about half of the public having heard little to nothing about the boosters.
“A lot of people just aren’t paying as much attention,” said Lunna Lopes, a senior survey analyst at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “To some extent they’ve moved on to pre-pandemic activities, as the perceived threat of the virus diminishes, you see that people just aren’t paying as much attention to news of new vaccine availability.”
Comparing the current pace of uptake with the original booster rollout is challenging, said Lopes, since eligibility gradually expanded the first time around, but all adults and some children can get the shot now. But last fall, surveys showed that only about 5 percent of adults said they would definitely not be getting a booster dose, compared with about 16 percent now, she said.
Political polarization around covid and vaccines is also impacting the rollout, according to KFF. While 52 percent of Democrats said they plan to get the updated booster as soon as possible, only 11 percent of Republicans said the same.
The pace of uptake may pick up if cases rise this fall, since nearly 1 in 5 adults are taking a “wait and see” approach. But it takes weeks for the booster to confer maximal protection, said Hotez. “If numbers start going up precipitously in the winter, we’ll lose some people because it takes time to get an immune response.”
Even if the U.S. is spared a new variant or massive winter surge, the country is still losing about 400 people each day to the virus and sending many more to the hospital. With signs that flu and other respiratory illnesses could spike after being kept in check by masking and other public health measures that have been largely abandoned, health systems need all the help they can get. Widespread boosting represents the best tool to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed this winter, said Hotez, but that works only if people roll up their sleeves.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.