How has the rollout of the new COVID-19 vaccine boosters gone so far? Shots are plentiful, waits are short, but demand is uncertain.



SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

New COVID booster shots designed to protect against omicron are available to anybody 12 and older. But are people scrambling to get jabbed this time around? NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us. Rob, thanks so much for being with us.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: These new boosters have been available since the Labor Day weekend. What do we know about the rollout?

STEIN: So the government ordered more than 170 million doses of the new shots, which are updated versions of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines that match the omicron subvariants infecting people right now. About 25 million shots have been shipped to more than 26,000 doctors offices, pharmacies, clinics and other places around the country. And unlike earlier rollouts of the vaccines and boosters, there appears to be plenty of vaccine available and no problems getting a shot. I talked about this with Claire Hannan at the Association of Immunization Managers.

CLAIRE HANNAN: I haven’t heard of any people having to wait. I had an easy time getting an appointment. When I made an appointment and I went, there were many people that came in as walk-ins. So I think it’s very easy to find the vaccine.

STEIN: But, you know, Scott, the big question is how much demand will there be for these new boosters?

SIMON: Well, yes. And you anticipate – have many people have been going in to get jabbed?

STEIN: Yeah. So, you know, more than 200 million people are eligible for the new shots. And the government hasn’t released any numbers yet about how many have actually rolled up their sleeves so far. That’s supposedly coming next week. But, you know, it could be slow going. Most of the people who have been eligible for the first two boosters never got them. And demand has dropped with each new round of shots. Lots of people have just kind of moved on from the pandemic. I talked about this with Jennifer Kates at the Kaiser Family Foundation, which has been tracking the vaccination campaigns.

JENNIFER KATES: I do think it’s going to be an uphill battle. I do think it’s a tough sell just because of where we are on this point in the pandemic. People are weary. People are not sure about what’s the benefit to me? Why should I do this? I guess I’m a little pessimistic that this is going to move them.

STEIN: That said, Kates says some people who skipped the earlier boosters say they have been waiting for new shots that target the latest variants. And Claire Hannan says so far, demand seems on par with previous booster rollouts.

SIMON: What’s the Biden administration saying and doing?

STEIN: The administration just launched a new campaign to try to convince people to get the shots. Federal health officials are emphasizing that while it may seem like the pandemic is over, hundreds of people are still dying every day from COVID, and another wave could very well hit the country this fall and winter. I talked to Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator. He thinks many people are waiting to get their new boosters with their annual flu shots. And the new shots could be more enticing because they’re hopefully the last booster people will need for at least another year.

ASHISH JHA: I am hopeful that people understand that with fall and winter ahead, the risks as people gather – we’re going to have very little mitigation. You’re not going to see a lot of mask-wearing and social distancing. People want to gather safely for the holidays over Thanksgiving, over Christmas. It’s going to be really important for people to get this vaccine.

STEIN: So Jha says anyone who hasn’t gotten a shot or been infected within the last three months should get one of the new boosters and is urging people to get the shots by Halloween so they’ll be protected through the winter.

SIMON: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein, thanks so much.

STEIN: You bet, Scott.

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