By CARLA K. JOHNSON, AP Medical Writer
US health officials say 4.4 million Americans have rolled up their sleeves to get the updated COVID-19 booster shot. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the tally Thursday as public health experts lamented President Joe Biden’s recent comment that “the pandemic is over.”
The White House said more than 5 million people received the new boosters based on its own estimate that explains reporting delays in the states.
Health experts said it is too early to predict whether demand will match the 171 million doses of new boosters the US has ordered for the fall.
“Nobody would look at our consumption of flu shots right now and say, ‘Oh, what a mess,’” 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 will see a lot of people getting the (new COVID vaccine).”
A temporary shortage of the Moderna vaccine caused some pharmacies to cancel appointments and encouraged people to reschedule a Pfizer shot. The problem was expected to be resolved when government regulators completed an inspection and cleared batches of vaccine doses for distribution.
“I hope this improves in the coming weeks,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, White House COVID-19 coordinator. “We have been thinking and talking about this as an annual vaccine like the flu shot. Influenza vaccine season begins in late September and early October. We are just beginning our education campaign. So we expect to see, despite the fact that this was a good start, we actually expect this to pick up more strongly.”
Some Americans planning to get the vaccine, designed to attack the most common omicron strains, said they are waiting because they recently had COVID-19 or another booster. They are following public health advice to wait several months to get the full benefit of their existing virus-fighting antibodies.
Others are scheduling vaccinations closer to holiday gatherings and the winter months when respiratory viruses spread more easily.
Retired hospital chaplain Jeanie Murphy, 69, of Shawnee, Kansas, plans to receive the new brace in a couple of weeks after undergoing minor knee surgery. Her interest is high among her neighbors because of what she sees on the Nextdoor app.
“There’s quite a bit of discussion among people who are ready to make appointments,” Murphy said. “I found that encouraging. For every naysayer, there will be 10 or 12 people who will jump up and say, ‘You’re crazy. You just have to go get the injection.’”
Biden later acknowledged the criticism of his comment about the end of the pandemic, clarifying that the pandemic is “not where it was.” The initial comment didn’t bother Murphy. She believes the disease has entered a stable state when “we will get the COVID shots in the fall, just like the flu shots.”
Experts hope he’s right, but they’re waiting to see what levels of infection winter brings. The summer ebb in the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths may be followed by another surge, Dowdy said.
When a panel of biodefense experts asked Dr. Anthony Fauci Thursday what still keeps him up at night, he noted that half of vaccinated Americans never received an initial booster dose.
“We have a vulnerability in our population that will continue to have us in a mode of possible disruption of our social order,” Fauci said. “I think we have to do better as a nation.”
Some Americans who received the new vaccines said they are excited about targeting the vaccine at the variants now circulating.
“Give me all the science you can,” said Jeff Westling, 30, a lawyer in Washington, DC, who received the new booster and a flu shot on Tuesday, one in each arm. He participates in the combat sport jujitsu, 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 statement in a “60 Minutes” interview broadcast on Sunday echoed across social media.
“We still have a problem with COVID. We are still working a lot on it. But the pandemic is over,” Biden said as he walked through the Detroit auto show. “If you notice, no one is wearing masks. Everyone seems to be in very good shape. And that’s why I think it’s changing.”
On Facebook Wednesday, when a Kansas health department posted where residents could find the new booster shots, the first commenter sarcastically commented:
“But Biden says the pandemic is over.”
The president’s statement, despite his attempts 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 right time to push. ‘Am I eligible?’ People are often confused about what is the right option for them, including where to look for that information,” Michaud said.
“Any time you have mixed messages, it’s detrimental to the public health effort,” Michaud said. “Having the mixed messages of the president’s comments makes that job that much more difficult.”
University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi said he is concerned the president’s pronouncement has taken on a life of its own and could stall prevention efforts.
“That sound bite has been there for a while, and it will spread like wildfire. And it’s going to give the impression that ‘Oh, there’s nothing else we need to do,’” Salemi said.
“If we’re happy with 400 or 500 people dying every day from COVID, there’s a problem with that,” Salemi said. “We can absolutely do better because most of those deaths, if not all, are absolutely preventable with the tools that we have.”
New York City photographer Vivienne Gucwa, 44, received the new booster Monday. She had COVID twice, once before vaccines were available and again in May. She was vaccinated with two injections of Moderna, but she never received the original boosters.
“When I saw that the new booster could address the omicron variant, I thought, ‘I’m doing that,’” Gucwa said.
“I don’t want to deal with omicron again. I was a little excited to see that the thrusters were updated.”
AP medical writer Lauran Neergaard and AP White House correspondent Zeke Miller contributed. ___
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