Washington’s rates for the newly designed COVID-19 booster are lagging, in line with similarly slow demand for the updated shots nationwide despite urgent public health messaging.
The bivalent booster — which protects against severe illness from both the original virus strain, as well as omicron and its contagious subvariants — was authorized near the end of August and reached pharmacies and health care providers by early September. As of early October, though, rates were much lower than public health officials would like.
Everyone ages 12 and older who has completed their primary COVID vaccine series (the first two doses of Moderna, Pfizer or Novavax, or one dose of Johnson & Johnson) is eligible for the updated booster. It’s safe to mix and match vaccine brands, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found.
The Washington State Department of Health has yet to make statewide rates for updated boosters public, but in King County, only about 11.3% of eligible residents have gotten a new booster as of this week, compared with about 55.5% who received the original booster.
“Overall, King County residents have led the country with some of the highest rates of COVID-19 primary series vaccination rates nationwide,” Public Health — Seattle & King County spokesperson Kate Cole wrote in an email. “But, right now, we have major gaps in updated (bivalent) booster coverage, even among older adults.”
About 40% of U.S. adults, or about 105 million, have received their first booster shot initially offered a year ago, according to federal data. Early reports show that just over 11 million Americans, or about 4% of those eligible, have received the new bivalent boosters. A third of adults say they eventually plan to get those shots, The Washington Post reported.
According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation report, nearly half of American adults had heard little or nothing about the new boosters, The New York Times reported. So far, those 65 and older have reported the highest booster rates and understanding of the new shots, though confusion over eligibility was rather widespread, according to the newspaper.
“The single most important step we can take to protect ourselves and our community is to get vaccinated,” King County health officer Dr. Jeff Duchin said in a news briefing last month. “And if you are not boosted and you’re eligible, get an updated booster.”
In Seattle, it’s unclear if lower rates are primarily due to unawareness of the new boosters, decreased concern around COVID or difficulty finding appointments, but all of those factors likely play a role.
Kim Jones, 54, of West Seattle, has been eager to get her bivalent booster sooner rather than later so she’ll be protected in time for a mid-November charity bowling event she and her husband organize. She started by clicking onto the state’s online vaccine locator tool, but quickly ran into a few obstacles.
“They have good lists of places that might have the vaccine, but when you click through, it’s apparent that they aren’t linked to actual availability,” Jones wrote in a message to The Seattle Times. “The part that is frustrating is that there is STILL not a great way to check availability in a central website. You have to click through to various providers and click through several questions before they will show you what appointments they do (or in most cases do NOT) have.”
Earlier this week, Kaiser Permanente’s Washington vaccine locator led to a broken website. It’s back up, but Jones couldn’t find any appointments in her neighborhood. As of Friday afternoon, she still hadn’t secured one, but said she’d try again Monday.
Many have reported attempts to secure week-of appointments are often unsuccessful, and state health officials are asking residents to be patient.
Bartell Drugs is booking appointments about three weeks out. Most appointments at Walgreens and other pharmacies are also available about a week out.
At UW Medicine, people are asked to call a vaccine appointment hotline to join a waitlist. UW Medicine spokesperson Susan Gregg said Friday that appointments should be scheduled within a few days of calling.
In the meantime, King County is also hosting several community vaccination events in Auburn, Kent and a handful of Seattle neighborhoods over the next two weeks. On Saturday, vaccination events will be held at the White River Buddhist Temple in Auburn, 3625 Auburn Way N., from 8 a.m. to noon; at the New Beginnings Christian Fellowship in Kent, 19300 108th Ave. S.E., from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.; and at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute in Seattle, 104 17th Ave. S., from 1 to 5 p.m.
When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization to the bivalent booster, the agency also removed authorization for the prior monovalent booster, meaning anyone who makes an appointment for a COVID booster will receive the newer shot.
Experts say the shot is most effective about a month after getting it, so those who plan to travel for Thanksgiving are encouraged to get their booster by the end of October at the latest.
If a large number of people don’t stay up-to-date on their COVID vaccines, particularly those at increased risk of developing serious infections, public health agencies are worried the fall and winter could see another uptick in hospitalizations and deaths, as well as new long COVID cases and added strain on the region’s hospital systems, Cole said.
“Getting an updated booster is an important step in improving our ability to limit the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on our lives, on our community including our schools, and on our economy,” Cole said. “COVID-19 is not disappearing; it’s changing and remains unpredictable.”