Public health officials have repeatedly warned that the U.S. will likely face another wave of COVID-19 infections as the weather gets colder and people travel and gather for the holidays.
But it doesn’t seem to be convincing a checked-out public to get vaccinated.
New COVID-19 booster shot uptake remained low heading into the Thanksgiving holiday, frustrating Biden administration officials who previously called for the public to get booster shots in time for Halloween.
White House COVID-19 response coordinator Ashish Jha last month said that everyone 50 and older should get the booster because “it is a difference between life and death.”
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The government has purchased 171 million doses of the updated vaccine. But well into November, federal data shows that just 11 percent of the population older than age 5 has received a dose, including just under 30 percent of people 65 and older.
“The boosters have had dismal uptake from the beginning,” said Rupali Limaye, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who studies vaccine demand. “I think that at this point, there is so much fatigue.”
Anthony Fauci, in likely his final White House briefing on Tuesday before he leaves government, implored people to get vaccinated and not get complacent about COVID-19.
“My message, and maybe the final message I give you, please, for your own safety, for that of your family, get your updated COVID-19 shot as soon as you’re eligible to protect yourself, your family and your community,” Fauci said.
“The real danger is in the people who have not been vaccinated. So that’s where we expect, if we’re going to see a problem this winter, it’s going to be among those people,” Fauci said.
Despite the availability of vaccines and treatments, hundreds of people are still dying of COVID-19 every day, and administration officials lamented the misinformation that’s led to skepticism about the effectiveness of the vaccines.
“Here’s what we know: If folks get their updated vaccines, and they get treated, if they have a breakthrough infection, we can prevent essentially every COVID death in America,” Jha said Tuesday.
Public health experts acknowledged the current pace of vaccinations leaves too many people vulnerable to severe disease. They said the administration could be doing more outreach and messaging with a greater sense of urgency.
Jen Kates, a senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said even if the administration had all the resources officials say are needed for an effective outreach campaign, reaching people would still be a struggle.
“I think it still is a little bit of an uphill battle because so many Americans are weary of COVID and sort of have tried to move beyond, unfortunately. Fighting that is a much longer-term challenge,” Kates said.
New COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are down from the most recent summer surge, even as the virus continues to circulate and deaths have plateaued at about 2,200 people every week.
The White House on Tuesday launched a six-week sprint aimed at convincing Americans to get their updated COVID-19 vaccine before the end of the year.
The administration said the campaign will focus on seniors and vulnerable communities hardest hit by the virus.
“The bottom line is we need more Americans vaccinated,” Jha said. “Each of the last two years, we’ve seen substantial increases late December into January, and so going out and getting vaccinated right now is a great way to protect yourself if that pattern holds.”
Public health experts have been calling for a targeted vaccination campaign for months, and Kates said she hoped the new focus would help nudge lagging vaccination rates.
“The urgency to get particularly vulnerable people boosted is there, it hasn’t gone away, and really focusing on those who are most vulnerable is probably the most important thing right now,” Kates said.
The administration said it will direct its limited remaining resources into a $475 million campaign for community health centers and community-based organizations to increase the pace of vaccinations.
More than 70,000 locations are offering the updated COVID-19 vaccines, and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is aiming to expand to even more locations.
HHS said it will invest $350 million into community health centers, which they can use for “mobile, drive-up, walk-up, or community-based vaccination events, partnerships with community and faith-based organizations for vaccination activities, raising awareness of the updated shot, and more.”
The administration will also invest $125 million for efforts to get more older Americans and people with disabilities vaccinated, including through accessible vaccination clinics, in-home vaccinations, transportation, outreach and education.
The funding for the new push comes as the White House is calling on Congress to include about $10 billion in supplemental funding for COVID-19 response as part of the must-pass government funding bill.
In his White House appearance, Fauci emphasized the need for people to get the updated shot, even if they’ve previously been vaccinated. The country can get to a point where there’s a minimal background level of infections and very few deaths, he said, but only if people protect themselves.
“We’re gonna get there. We can get there with less suffering if we use the interventions that we have,” Fauci said. “If you want to let nature take its course, we’re ultimately going to get there, but we’re going to lose a lot more people than we need to.”