US health officials say 4.4 million Americans have rolled up their sleeves for updated response to COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the count Thursday as health experts bemoaned President Joe Biden’s recent remark that the “pandemic is over.”
The White House said more than 5 million people received the new boosters, according to its own estimates, which take into account backlogs in state reporting.
Health experts said it was too early to predict whether demand would match the 171 million doses of new boosters the US ordered for the fall.
“At this point, no one would look at our flu shot 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 increase in cases, I think we’ll see a lot of people get (the new COVID vaccine).”
A temporary shortage of Moderna’s vaccine has prompted some pharmacies to cancel appointments while encouraging people to sign up for Pfizer’s vaccine. The problem was expected to be resolved when state regulators finished testing and cleared batches of vaccine doses for distribution.
“I expect it to intensify in the coming weeks,” said the White House’s COVID-19 coordinator, Dr. Ashish Jha. “We thought and talked about it like an annual vaccine, like a flu vaccine. The flu vaccine season begins in late September and early October. We are just starting our educational campaign. So we expect that even though it’s been a strong start, we actually expect it to grow stronger.”
Some Americans who plan to get a shot designed against the most common strains of omicron have said they are waiting because they recently had COVID-19 or another booster. They follow public health advice to wait a few months to get the full benefit of existing virus-fighting antibodies.
Others schedule filming closer to holiday gatherings and the winter months, when respiratory viruses spread more easily.
Retired hospital chaplain Jeannie Murphy, 69, of Shawnee, Kan., plans to get a new brace in a couple of weeks after 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 willing to make appointments,” Murphy said. “I am encouraged by this. For every skeptic, there are 10-12 people who will jump up and say, “You’re crazy.” You just have to go make the shot.”
Biden later acknowledged criticism that the pandemic was over and clarified that the pandemic was “not where it was.” Murphy’s first comment was not disconcerting. She believes that the disease has entered a stable state, when “in the fall we will get the COVID shots just like the flu shots.”
Experts hope she’s right, but wait to see what level of infection winter will bring. A summer decline in the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths could be followed by another surge, Dowdy said.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, who was asked by a panel of biosecurity experts on Thursday what still keeps him awake at night, noted that half of vaccinated Americans never receive the initial booster dose.
“There is a vulnerability in our population that will continue to keep us in a mode of potential disruption of our public order,” Fauci said. “I think we have to do better as a nation.”
Some Americans who received the new shots said they were excited about the idea of targeting the vaccine with the variants now in circulation.
“Give me all the science you can,” said Jeff Westling, 30, a Washington, D.C., attorney who received a new booster and flu shot Tuesday, one in each arm. He practices martial arts jiu-jitsu, so he wants to protect himself from infections that can come from close contact. “I have no problem trusting people whose job it is to look at the evidence.”
Meanwhile, Biden’s remarks in an interview with “60 Minutes” that aired on Sunday have resonated on social media.
“We still have a problem with COVID. We are still working on it a lot. But the pandemic is over,” Biden said while walking around the Detroit Auto Show. “If you notice, no one is wearing a mask. Everyone seems to be in pretty good shape. And that’s why I think it’s changing.”
On Facebook Wednesday, when the Kansas Department of Health posted a message about where residents can find new shots, the first commenter scathingly remarked:
“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 for global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation in Washington.
“People aren’t sure when is the best time to get a promotion. “Am I right?” People are often confused about the right choice for them, even where to look for this information,” Michaud said.
“Anytime you get mixed messages, it hurts public health efforts,” Michaud said. “The mixed messages from the president’s remarks make this job much more difficult.”
University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi said he worries the president’s announcement has taken on a life of its own and could stall prevention efforts.
“This soundbite has been around for a while and will spread like wildfire. And it will give the impression that, “Oh, we don’t have to do anything else,” Salemi said.
“If we’re happy with 400-500 people dying from COVID every day, there’s a problem with that,” Salemi said. “We absolutely can do better because most of these deaths, if not all of them, are completely preventable with the tools that we have.”
New York photographer Vivienne Gukwa, 44, got a new booster on Monday. She had COVID twice: once before vaccines were available and the second time in May. She was vaccinated with two Moderna shots, but never received the original boosters.
“When I saw that the new booster was capable of fighting the omicron variant, I thought, ‘I’m doing it,'” Gukwa said.
“I don’t want to deal with omicron again. I was thrilled that the boosters were updated.”
AP Medical Writer Lauran Neergaard and AP White House Correspondent Zeke Miller contributed.
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