According to US health officials, 4.4 million Americans rolled up their sleeves for the updated COVID-19 booster shot. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the count Thursday, as public health experts lamented President Joe Biden’s recent comment that “the pandemic is over.”
The White House said more than 5 million people have received the new boosters, according to its own estimate, which is responsible for reporting delays across the states.
Health experts said it was too early to predict whether demand would match the 171 million doses of the new boosters the US has ordered for the fall.
“Nobody would look at our flu shot intake at this point and say, ‘Oh, what a disaster,'” said Dr. David Dowdy, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “If we see a big spike in cases, I think we’re going to see a lot of people getting the (new COVID) vaccine.”
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A temporary shortage of Moderna vaccine caused some pharmacies to cancel appointments and encourage people to reschedule for a Pfizer vaccine. The issue was expected to resolve as state regulators complete an inspection and release batches of vaccine doses for distribution.
“I expect this to increase in the coming weeks,” said White House COVID-19 coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha. “We’ve been thinking and talking about it as an annual vaccine like the flu vaccine. The flu vaccine season begins in late September and early October. We are in the process of launching our awareness campaign. So despite the fact that we’ll see that this was a strong start, we actually expect this to be even stronger.”
Some Americans planning to get the vaccine, which aims to target the most common Omicron strains, said they are waiting because they either recently had COVID-19 or had another booster shot. They are following public health advice to wait several months to take full advantage of their existing virus-fighting antibodies.
Others are planning shots closer to public holidays and winter months when respiratory viruses spread more easily.
Retired hospital chaplain Jeanie Murphy, 69, of Shawnee, Kansas, plans to get the new booster shot in a few weeks after undergoing minor knee surgery. Her neighbors are very interested, as she can see in the Nextdoor app.
“There’s quite a lot of discussion going on between people who are willing to make appointments,” Murphy said. “I found that encouraging. For every naysayer, there are 10 or 12 people who step in and say, ‘You’re crazy. You just have to get the syringe.’”
Biden later acknowledged criticism of his remark about the end of the pandemic, clarifying that the pandemic “is not where it was.” The initial comment didn’t bother Murphy. She believes that when “we get COVID shots in the fall just like we do flu shots,” the disease has entered a stable state.
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Experts hope she is right, but are waiting to see what number of infections the winter will bring. The summer’s ebb in case counts, hospitalizations and deaths could be followed by another spike, Dowdy said.
dr Anthony Fauci, asked Thursday by a panel of biodefense experts what keeps him up at night, found that half of vaccinated Americans never received an initial booster dose.
“We have a vulnerability in our population that will continue to put us in some sort of potential disruption to our social order,” Fauci said. “I think we have to do better as a nation.”
Some Americans who received the new shots said they were excited about the idea of targeting the vaccine to the variants now in circulation.
“Give me all the science you can get,” said Jeff Westling, 30, an attorney in Washington, DC, who received the new booster shot and a flu shot Tuesday, one in each arm. He practices martial arts Jiu-Jitsu, so he wants to protect himself from infections that can occur with close contact. “I have no problem trusting people whose job it is to look at the evidence.”
Meanwhile, Biden’s remarks resonated on social media in a 60 Minutes interview that aired Sunday.
“We still have a problem with COVID. We’re still working on it a lot. But the pandemic is over,” Biden said as he walked the Detroit Auto Show. “When you notice that nobody is wearing masks. Everyone seems to be in pretty good shape. And that’s why I think that’s changing.”
When a Kansas health department posted on Facebook on Wednesday where local residents could find the new booster shots, the first commenter snidely noted:
“But Biden says the pandemic is over.”
The president’s statement adds to the public’s confusion despite his attempts to clarify it, said Josh Michaud, associate director for global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation in Washington.
“People are not sure when is the right time for a refresher. ‘Am I eligible?’ People are often confused about what is the right choice for them, even where to look for that information,” Michaud said.
“Any time you have mixed messages, it’s detrimental to public health efforts,” Michaud said. “Having the mixed messages from the President’s remarks makes this job all the more difficult.”
Epidemiologist Jason Salemi of the University of South Florida said he was concerned the president’s statement had taken on a life of its own and could derail prevention efforts.
“This soundbite has been around for a while now and it’s going to spread like wildfire. And it’s going to be like, ‘Oh, we don’t have to do anything else,'” Salemi said.
“If we’re happy with 400 or 500 people dying from COVID every day, there’s a problem with that,” Salemi said. “We can absolutely do better because most, if not all, of these deaths are entirely preventable with the tools that we have.”
New York photographer Vivienne Gucwa, 44, got the new booster on Monday. She had COVID twice, once before vaccines were available and again in May. She was vaccinated with two Moderna shots but never got the original booster.
“When I saw that the new booster was able to handle the Omicron variant, I thought, ‘I’ll do that,'” said Gucwa.
“I don’t want to mess with omicron again. I was kind of excited when I saw the boosters were updated.”
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AP Medical Writer Lauran Neergaard and AP White House Correspondent Zeke Miller contributed.