US health officials say 4.4 million Americans have rolled up their sleeves for the updated COVID-19 booster shot. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted the count Thursday as public health experts complained about 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 that explains the reporting delays in states.
Health experts said it’s too early to predict whether demand will match the 171 million doses of the new boosters the US has ordered for the fall.
“No one would look at our flu shot recording right now 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 start to see a big rise in cases, I think we’ll see a lot of people getting the (new COVID) vaccine.”
A temporary shortage of Moderna vaccine caused some pharmacies to cancel appointments and encourage people to reschedule for a Pfizer vaccine. The problem was expected to be resolved when government regulators completed an inspection and batches released vaccine doses for distribution.
“I expect this to increase in the coming weeks,” said Covid-19 coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha of the White House. “We’ve been thinking about it and talking about it as an annual vaccine like the flu vaccine. The flu vaccine season starts in late September and early October. We have just started our information campaign. So we expect that despite the fact that this was a strong start, we actually expect this to pick up more strongly.”
Some Americans planning to get the shot, designed to target the most common ommicron strains, said they’re waiting because they recently had COVID-19 or some other booster. They are following public health advice to wait several months to get the full benefit of their existing virus-fighting antibodies.
Others schedule shots closer to holiday gatherings and winter months when respiratory viruses spread more easily.
Retired hospital pastor Jeanie Murphy, 69, of Shawnee, Kansas, plans to get the new booster in a few weeks after undergoing minor knee surgery. Her neighbors are very interested in what she sees on the Nextdoor app.
“There’s quite a bit of discussion going on among people who are ready to make appointments,” Murphy said. “I found that encouraging. For every naysayer, there will be 10 or 12 people who will jump in and say, ‘You’re crazy. You just have to go and take the picture.’”
Biden later acknowledged criticism of his comment about the pandemic being over and clarified that the pandemic “isn’t where it was”. The first comment didn’t bother Murphy. She believes the disease has reached a steady state when “we get COVID injections in the fall, just like with flu shots.”
Experts hope she’s right, but wait to see what levels of infection the winter brings. The summer ebb in cases, hospitalizations and deaths could be followed by another surge, Dowdy said.
dr. Anthony Fauci, who was asked Thursday by a panel of biodefense experts what still keeps him up at night, noted that half of vaccinated Americans never received an initial booster dose.
“We have a vulnerability in our population that will keep us in a state of potential disruption of our social order,” Fauci said. “I think we need to do better as a nation.”
Some Americans who received the new injections said they are excited about the idea of targeting the vaccine at the variants that are now circulating.
“Give me all the science you can,” said Jeff Westling, 30, a lawyer in Washington, DC, who received the new booster and a flu shot on Tuesday, one in each arm. He participates in the martial art of jiu-jitsu, so he wants to protect himself from infections that can come with close contact. “I have no problem trusting people whose job it is to look at the evidence.”
Meanwhile, Biden’s statement echoed in a ’60 minutes’ interview broadcast on social media on Sunday.
“We still have a problem with COVID. We are still working on it. But the pandemic is over,” Biden said as he walked through the Detroit auto show. ‘If you notice that no one wears masks. Everyone seems to be in pretty good shape. And so I think it’s changing.”
By Wednesday on Facebook, when a Kansas health department posted where residents could find the new booster shots, the first commenter derisively noted:
“But Biden says the pandemic is over.”
The president’s statement, despite his efforts to clarify it, adds to public confusion, said Josh Michaud, associate director of global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation in Washington.
“People aren’t sure when is the right time to get a boost. “Am I eligible?” People are often confused about what is the right choice for them, not even where to look for that information,” says Michaud.
“Every time you have mixed messages, it’s harmful to public health,” Michaud said. “The mixed messages of the president’s comments make that job all the more difficult.”
University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi said he is concerned the president’s ruling has taken on a life of its own and could delay prevention efforts.
“That sound bite has been around for a while and is going to spread like wildfire. And it will give the impression that ‘Oh, we don’t have to do anything more,’ said Salemi.
“If we’re happy with 400 or 500 people dying from COVID every day, there’s a problem with that,” Salemi said. “We can definitely do better because most, if not all, of those deaths are absolutely preventable with the tools we have.”
New York City photographer Vivienne Gucwa, 44, got the new booster on Monday. She has had COVID twice, once before vaccines were available and again in May. She has been vaccinated with two Moderna injections, but never received the original boosters.
“When I saw that the new booster was able to tackle the omicron variant, I thought, ‘I will,'” said Gucwa.
“I don’t want to deal with ommicron anymore. I was a little excited to see that the boosters had been updated.”
AP Medical Writer Lauran Neergaard and AP White House Correspondent Zeke Miller contributed. ____
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