When it comes to wasting money, the Biden administration has few peers. Earlier this year, Team Biden reallocated billions of dollars to buy 170 million doses of the new bivalent COVID-19 vaccine. The problem is that few people get the recordings.
The CDC reports that only 35 million people — about 11% of the population and just 15% of the 227 million people who completed the primary vaccine series and are eligible for the new booster vaccine — have taken it in the three months since it was approved.
But rather than investigate why the response is so poor, the administration resorts to its usual solution — spend more money. White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha, has just announced a “six week sprint” to convince Americans to get their updated vaccines.
The White House fact sheet for the new campaign reports that “over 70,000 locations are already offering the updated COVID-19 vaccines and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) took steps this month to expand to even more locations.” .
Apparently that’s not enough. The government says it will steal another $475 million from the Provider Relief Fund – which is designed to preserve the health care system by financially assisting providers who have experienced lost revenue and increased spending during the pandemic – to help uptake of bivalent boosters. The program will “invest” (this government never spends) $350 million in community health centers to raise awareness of boosters and expand immunization activities. Another $125 million will go “to national organizations that serve people with disabilities and older adults to support community immunization programs and efforts.”
The campaign will include a paid media campaign targeting Americans over 50 and those with chronic medical conditions with a TV ad called “Can’t Wait.”
Who are the beneficiaries of this generosity? The same organizations have already been generously funded to increase the number of vaccinations. Is there reason to believe that this new effort will be more successful than previous ones?
The government has been trying for months to increase awareness and uptake of boosters through private organizations and HHS’ longstanding public COVID-19 vaccine awareness campaign, “We Can Do This,” aimed at increasing vaccination rates.
The fact is, someone has had to live under a rock for the past three years to be unaware of the pandemic, vaccines, and now boosters. It’s not an advertising problem. It’s a demand problem.
People are not vaccinated against a disease they think poses little risk to them. New COVID cases, ER visits for COVID, and COVID hospitalizations peaked three months ago and have been declining since then. The COVID death rate peaked in early February, declined rapidly, and has been low and stable since May.
Unsurprisingly, the number of vaccines distributed has returned to the low levels of the past nine months, after a small and short-lived surge in early September following the approval of the bivalent booster vaccine. Most recently, there were many vaccinations in mid-December 2021, at the same time as the Omicron surge.
Demand has also been hampered by the fact that vaccines are not very effective at reducing transmission of the latest virus variants. Breakthrough infections, some serious and even fatal, are common, prompting The Washington Post to recently declare that “Covid is no longer primarily a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
The administration insists it was “forced to reprioritize resources due to a lack of funding from Congress” to “boost immunization levels ahead of a potential winter COVID surge.” So far, that spike hasn’t materialized, and demand for the new boosters is unlikely to increase until it does.
The solution to all problems is not – as the Biden administration seems to believe – to spend more money. The government has already squandered billions by buying millions of booster doses that will likely never be used. It shouldn’t throw away good money after bad anymore.
Joel Zinberg is a Senior Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Director of the Paragon Health Institute’s Public Health and American Well-Being Initiative.