Only about 40% of people who are eligible have gotten a COVID booster shot
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The evidence has become increasingly clear that a COVID booster shot can help restore waning immunity and that people who get boosted are much less likely to be hospitalized or die if they do get infected. But most Americans have yet to get one, and NPR's Allison Aubrey is here to explain.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good to be here.
SHAPIRO: What are the numbers? How many people actually have gotten a booster shot?
AUBREY: During the first week of December, more than a million people a day were rolling up their sleeves for a booster shot, but that number has now declined by more than 60%. Overall, only about 41% of people aged 50 and up who are eligible have gotten boosted. The irony is that, during this same period, it's become increasingly clear that boosters dramatically increase protection, especially in people 50 and above. The U.K. Health Security Agency has concluded that, amid the omicron surge, a booster shot boosted protection against death from an omicron infection up to around 95%.
Now, I talked to Dr. Lance Becker about this. He's chair of emergency medicine at Northwell Health, which is a large health care provider in New York.
LANCE BECKER: We know that, over time, even if you got two shots at one point - if it's been 5, 6, 7 months, that immunity will actually go down, and the boosters are so important to give that immunity back to a person so they can be protected.
SHAPIRO: Allison, what might explain the drop in this rate of people getting boosted?
AUBREY: I think a lot of people assume, you know, the worst is over. Polls suggest a lot of people think we just have to learn to live with the virus and get back to normal. And with cases coming down so much, people wonder, do I really need a booster?
I spoke to Jason Schwartz at Yale about this. He studies how evidence is translated into policy. He says the messaging on boosters has just not been as clear as it could have been.
JASON SCHWARTZ: I think the White House, the CDC, other public health officials have been stuck. On the one hand, we know it's critically important to continue efforts to try and reach the unvaccinated, and perhaps emphasizing that two doses isn't as good as we thought it once was makes it that much harder to get folks to initiate vaccination. And that might be holding back some of the clear messaging around the importance of boosters.
AUBREY: Now, today, at a White House briefing, CDC director Rochelle Walensky reiterated the point that boosters are essential. She pointed to data from 25 jurisdictions around the country showing that, amid this omicron surge, unvaccinated people were 97 times more likely to die compared to those who were boosted - 97 times more likely to die - so a pretty dramatic difference.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. And now, given that cases are dropping but hospitalizations remain high, did Dr. Walensky or other top officials at the briefing today forecast what they're expecting for the weeks ahead?
AUBREY: There were a lot of questions about vaccines for young children under 5. Adviser Jeff Zients said the administration is already preparing for the possibility of authorization, working on distribution plans - of course, all dependent on FDA authorization and a CDC recommendation.
In regard to the new omicron variant, BA.2, Dr. Walensky estimates it accounts for about 1.5% of cases in the U.S. now, and it could, might, slow down the decline in cases. If you look at other countries where BA.2 is circulating, in some places cases have continued to come down, although at a slower rate. However, in Denmark, cases have continued to go up amid the BA.2 rise. So it's a bit unclear. But, big picture, she said vaccines do appear to be protective against BA.2; however, this might not be the last variant we see.
Here's Dr. Anthony Fauci.
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ANTHONY FAUCI: We can't guarantee that there will not be another variant that challenges us, but the best that we can do with that is to be prepared for it.
AUBREY: So he said the plan will be to continue to encourage vaccination and booster shots, as well as doing things such as producing more antiviral pills so the U.S. is prepared for the potential of future outbreaks.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Allison Aubrey, thanks a lot.
AUBREY: Thank you.
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