The U.S. needs to step up its booster shot campaign

About half of U.S. adults haven’t heard much about the updated COVID-19 booster shots, according to a recent survey done by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

New, Omicron-specific booster shots are publicly available for all American adults who’ve been previously vaccinated. This is the first time our shots actually match the dominant coronavirus variant (BA.5), and possibly the last time that the shots will be covered for free by the federal government.

So… why does it feel like almost nobody knows about them? Since the CDC and FDA authorized these shots, I’ve had multiple conversations with friends and acquaintances who had no idea they were eligible for a new booster. My own booster happened in a small, cramped room of a public hospital—a far cry from the mass vaccination sites that New York City has offered in past campaigns.

This week, the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) provided some data to back up such anecdotal evidence. According to the September iteration of KFF’s Vaccine Monitor survey, about half of U.S. adults have heard only “a little” or “nothing at all” about the new boosters. That includes more than half of adults who have been previously vaccinated.

Moreover, the KFF survey found that 40% of previously vaccinated adults (who received the full primary series) are “not sure” if the updated booster is recommended for them. Another 11% said the new booster is not recommended for them—which is not true! The CDC has recommended these boosters for everyone who previously got vaccinated.

Booster eligibility knowledge is even lower in certain demographics, KFF found. That includes: 55% of previously vaccinated Black adults and 57% of Hispanic adults don’t know that they’re eligible for boosters. Same thing for 57% of vaccinated adults with less than a college education and 58% of those living in rural areas.

As of September 28, only 7.6 million Americans have received an updated booster shot, the CDC reports.

Overall, the CDC reports that about 7.6 million Americans have received an updated booster shot as of September 28, including 4.9 million who received a Pfizer shot and 2.7 million who received a Moderna shot. This represents less than 4% of all fully vaccinated adults who are eligible for the new boosters. And we don’t have demographic data yet, but I expect the patterns will fall among similar lines to what KFF’s survey found.

“Clear and consistent messaging accompanied by strategies to deliver boosters is needed to narrow these gaps,” said public health expert Anne Sosin, sharing the KFF findings on Twitter. We need big, public campaigns for the new boosters in line with what we got for the original vaccines in 2021—or else the new shots won’t be very helpful in an inevitable fall/winter surge.

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