The surge in the spread of COVID-19 in the US is easing, worrisome to health experts who have been pleading with Americans for an extra shot to bolster their defenses against the highly contagious omicron variant.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 40% of fully vaccinated Americans received a booster dose. And the average number of boosters given per day in the US has plummeted from a peak of 1 million in early December to about 490,000 last week.
In addition, a new survey by the Associated Press-NORC Public Affairs Research Center found that Americans are more likely to consider initial vaccinations, rather than boosters, necessary.
“It is clear that the booster effort is failing,” said Jason Schwartz, an expert on vaccine policy at Yale University.
Overall, the US vaccination campaign has been sluggish. More than 13 months after it started, just 63% of Americans, or 210 million people, are fully vaccinated with the first round of shots. Mandates that could increase these numbers have been hampered by legal problems.
Vaccination rates in states such as Wyoming, Idaho, Mississippi, and Alabama remain unchanged and hover below 50%.
In Wyoming, 44% are fully vaccinated, up from 41% in September. To boost the numbers, the state is running TV ads in which healthcare workers tell grim stories of unvaccinated people struggling with COVID-19.
“Of course we would like to see better performance. But it would be wrong to think that the numbers we have are due to a lack of effort,” Kim Children, a spokeswoman for the Wyoming Department of Health, said Tuesday.
At the other end of the spectrum, Vermont is the national leader in the percentage of people who are fully vaccinated and re-vaccinated. About 60% of the population over the age of 18 received revaccination. But that’s not enough, Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine said.
“I would like that percentage to be much closer to 90%,” Levin said.
The US and many other countries are urging adults to get boosters because vaccine protection could be weakened. In addition, research has shown that while vaccines have proven less effective against omicrons, boosters can increase the body’s defenses against the threat.
As for why the estimated 86 million Americans who have been fully vaccinated and eligible for a booster haven’t received it yet, Schwartz said public confusion is one big reason.
“I think there is now overwhelming evidence that a booster is not just an optional supplement, but an essential part of protection,” he said. “But obviously that message has been lost.”
The need for all Americans to get boosters was initially debated by scientists, and at first the government recommended that only certain groups of people, such as the elderly, get extra doses. The advent of omicrons and additional data on the decline in immunity more clearly showed the widespread need for boosters.
But the message “was lost in a sea of changing recommendations and guidance,” Schwartz said.
An AP-NORC poll found that 59% of Americans believe it is necessary to get the vaccine in order to fully participate in public life without feeling the risk of contracting COVID-19. Only 47% say the same about the booster shot.
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Keller Ann Ruble, 32, of Denver, received two doses of Moderna but has yet to receive a booster. She said she had a bad reaction to the second dose and was in bed for four days with a fever and flu-like symptoms.
“I believe in the power of vaccines and I know they will protect me,” said Rubl, owner of a greeting card service. But the vaccine “just completely knocked me out and scared me that I got a booster.”
She said she plans to get a booster in the next few weeks, but for now she wears an N95 mask and tries to stay at home.
“I just don’t want to get sick with COVID in general,” she said. “It scares me”.
Blake Hassler, 26, of Nashville, Tennessee, said he has no plans to make a booster. He received two doses of Pfizer last year after a mild case of COVID-19 in 2020. He said he considers himself to be in the low-risk category.
“At this stage, we need to focus on preventing serious diseases when symptoms appear, and not on creating a new vaccine every six weeks and more conflicting prescriptions,” he said.