NEW YORK (AP) – The COVID-19 booster drive in the US is losing steam, worrying health experts who have asked Americans for an extra chance to strengthen their protection against the highly contagious omicron variant.
Only 40% of fully vaccinated Americans have received a booster dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the average number of booster shots dispensed per day in the U.S. has plummeted from a high of 1 million in early December to around 490,000 last week.
Also, a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research showed that Americans are more likely to see the initial vaccinations – rather than a booster – as crucial.
“Obviously, booster efforts are falling short,” said Jason Schwartz, a vaccine policy expert at Yale University.
Overall, the U.S. vaccination campaign has been sluggish. More than 13 months after it began, only 63% of Americans, or 210 million people, are fully vaccinated with the initial shots. Mandates that could raise these numbers have been hampered by legal challenges.
Vaccination rates are stagnant in states such as Wyoming, Idaho, Mississippi and Alabama, which have hovered below 50%.
In Wyoming, 44% are fully vaccinated, up from 41% in September. To increase the number, the state has run TV commercials with health professionals giving gloomy accounts of unvaccinated people struggling with COVID-19.
“We would certainly like to see higher rates. But it would be wrong for anyone to think that the rates we have are due to lack of effort,” Wyoming Health Department spokeswoman Kim Deti said Tuesday.
At the other end of the spectrum, Vermont is a national leader in the percentage of people who have been fully vaccinated and given a booster shot. About 60% of the population over 18 has received a booster. But that’s not enough, Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine said.
“I would love to see that percentage much closer to 90%,” Levine said.
The United States and many other nations have encouraged adults to get boosters because vaccine protection may decline. Research has also shown that although vaccines have been shown to be less effective against omicron, boosters can strengthen the body’s defenses against the threat.
As to why an estimated 86 million Americans who have been fully vaccinated and are eligible for a booster have not yet received one, Schwartz said public confusion is a major cause.
“I think the evidence now is overwhelming that the booster is not just an optional supplement, but it’s a fundamental part of protection,” he said. “But it is clear that the message has been lost.”
The need for all Americans to get boosters was initially discussed by scientists, and at first the government only recommended that certain groups of people, such as senior citizens, be given additional doses. The advent of the omicron and further evidence of declining immunity more clearly showed a widespread need for boosters.
But the message “has been lost at sea by changing recommendations and guidance,” Schwartz said.
The AP-NORC Center survey showed that 59% of Americans believe it is important to receive a vaccine to fully participate in public life without feeling at risk for COVID-19 infection. Only 47% say the same about a booster shot.
Keller Anne Ruble, 32, of Denver, received her two doses of the Moderna vaccine but has not received her booster. She said she had a bad reaction to the second dose and lay in bed for four days with fever and flu-like symptoms.
“I believe in the power of vaccines and I know it will protect me,” said Ruble, the owner of a service to send greeting cards. But the vaccine “just knocked me out completely and scared me about getting the booster.”
She said she plans to get the booster over the next few weeks and in the meantime she is wearing an N95 mask and trying to stay home.
“I just do not want to get COVID in general,” she said. “It scares me.”
Blake Hassler, 26, of Nashville, Tennessee, said he has no plans to get the booster. He received Pfizer’s two doses last year after having a mild case of COVID-19 in 2020. He said he considers himself to be in a low-risk category.
“At this point, we need to focus on preventing serious illness at the onset of symptoms instead of creating a new shot every six weeks and more divisive mandates,” he said.
AP writers Mead Mines in Fort Collins, Colorado; Wilson Ring in Montpelier, Vermont; and Mike Stobbe of New York contributed to this report.
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