Many Americans are shunning the Omicron COVID booster. What it means for the future

Relatively few Americans have received Omicron’s new booster, and most don’t plan to get it soon, if at all, according to a new survey.

Only 7.6 million Americans, out of a total of 333 million, have received the new COVID vaccine, which became widely available around Labor Day. That compares with 225 million people who received the initial hit.

Everyone aged 12 and over is eligible for the booster if they have had their main shots. But most Americans — more than two-thirds — have either put off getting the shot or have no intention of getting one, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll released last week.

Supply is not a problem. The shot, bought by the federal government, is free. And the updated jabs, produced by household names Pfizer and Moderna, use the same technology as the initial shots, with an added boost in protection against the currently dominant Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 strains.

So why is the vaccine ramping up, especially with a new wave of infections expected to arrive in the coming weeks? And what might fall and winter look like with a population with waning immunity to COVID?

Experts say COVID fatigue, among other factors, is causing the vaccine-friendly, who are weary of shots that protect against death but don’t prevent disease, to join the ranks of anti-vaccine skeptics , as the pandemic drags on into its third year.

“No one is willing to take the vaccine,” said Dr. Ali Mokdad, a professor at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. the fortune. The center’s modeling predicts a surge of COVID in the U.S. starting to rise in mid-to-late October and peaking in January.

Many Americans received their first COVID vaccinations, then boosters. But they still had COVID, he said. “And they surrendered. They said, ‘I’m not worried about this virus anymore,’ and they’ve moved on.”

Stunned and dismayed

Slightly more than half of Americans report that they have already returned to their pre-Covid-19 lives or plan to do so in the near future, according to a September Ipsos survey. And roughly two-thirds believe the pandemic is over.

Not surprisingly, most Americans have put the virus behind them, despite tens of thousands of new cases and hundreds of new deaths every day. In May, US infectious disease specialist Dr. Anthony Fauci said PBS News Hour that the country is “out of the pandemic phase”. And President Biden proclaimed in September that “the pandemic is over.”

If the pandemic is over, why get a boost?

“If someone says it’s all over, people won’t line up and get a boost the next day,” said Dr. Raj Rajnarayanan, assistant dean for research and associate professor at the Institute of Technology’s campus in New York to Jonesboro, Ark. he said the fortune

To add insult to injury, the CDC’s “community levels” COVID map shows that most of the country is seeing low levels of the virus, said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. the fortune What’s not immediately apparent is that the map is more reflective of COVID hospital capacity and revenue. A deeper map shows high levels of viral spread across the vast majority of the country.

“Most of the nation is green on the CDC prevalence map,” Benjamin said, referring to the color associated with low “community levels.”

“I think the general perception of people is that the thing is going away. We’re just not very good as a species at understanding risk,” he said.

Some Americans are not questioning the country’s pandemic status, but have lost faith in the shots, which were initially touted by public health officials as a one-time blow that would end the pandemic, Mokdad says.

“They say, ‘My immune system has seen it, it’s treated it, I don’t need the vaccine,'” he said. But “these people are among those who are still alive. They don’t remember the 4,000 or so who die every week. The people look at the result they favor and make the decision not to vaccinate.”

Dr. Bruce Walker, director of the Ragon Institute at MGH, MIT, and Harvard, a medical institute focused on disease eradication, and co-leader of the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Preparedness, agrees.

“I think the fact that vaccines don’t completely prevent infection, but rather attenuate the disease, is something that has confused people and made them less eager to get vaccinated,” he said. the fortune

Ignorance of reinforcement

Some Americans do not actively reject the new reinforcement; they just don’t know it exists. Just under a third of Americans have heard only “a little” about the new Omicron boosters, and 20 percent have heard nothing at all, according to the Kaiser survey.

Public health agencies are not messaging the availability and benefits of the booster with the same volume and frequency as when the COVID-19 vaccines arrived. The White House held a press conference on September 6 to announce the availability of Omicron’s specific boosters; then, silence, in general.

“Honestly, there hasn’t been a big push to get people vaccinated,” Benjamin said. “We told people it was there, but it was kind of a one-shot effort.”

Then there are those who know it, but think it doesn’t qualify, according to Benjamin. Those over 12 who have received their “primary series” (two shots of Modena and/or Pfizer) and are at least two months removed from their last shot (primary or booster series) are eligible, according to the CDC.

But those who received the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine, or a different vaccine like Novavax, may not know they qualify. And some who had been boosted before the Omicron shots came along may think they don’t need a new boost, Benjamin says.

While there has been some public health messaging about the safety of getting the Omicron booster and flu shots together, the message is focused on the safety of getting both at the same time, not that people should get both vaccines, Benjamin said.

“I think it’s a missed opportunity,” he added.

Defining a pandemic

It adds to the country’s booster problems: Many Americans don’t seem to understand that vaccines are necessary both during and after pandemics, said Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist and principal investigator at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. the fortune.

Compounding the problem: There is no agreed-upon milestone that the country must reach before moving out of pandemic and into endemicity, in which a disease is present but does not significantly disrupt daily life.

“People get vaccinated every year and there hasn’t been a flu pandemic since 2009,” Adalja said, referring to the 2009 H1N1 flu strain.

Since COVID is not crippling the health care system as it once did, Adjala tends to agree with the idea that the pandemic is over and has moved into an endemic phase. But booster shots are no less vital, he says.

There’s a “false binary, a misconception that there’s nothing in between: it’s a pandemic or it’s nothing,” he said. But “just because a pandemic is over doesn’t mean there isn’t work to do to make COVID-19 even less of a problem.”

Hope and trepidation

Adalja is optimistic. He says booster rates may rise as those who recently received the old booster reach the end of their two-month waiting period for the new one. (The delay is supposed to reduce the risk of heart problems.) And many experts expect an increase in booster rates if COVID rates rise again this fall.

But as things stand, low booster rates mean new variants of COVID will face less resistance in the U.S. Antibody immunity, both from vaccination and infection, wears off after a few months , meaning that those who have not been vaccinated or recently infected will be more susceptible to the virus.

New variants of COVID are increasingly immune-evasive, evading manufactured antibody treatments and potentially making the vaccine less effective in the future.

“At this moment we must vaccinate ourselves as if [new variants] will not provide a new and critical challenge around immune evasion,” said Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. the fortune. “But we owe it to the public to say that we could be seeing a future aspect of this pandemic that’s different than any we’ve seen today.”

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