Bivalent vaccine numbers are lagging

MONTPELIER — About 26,000 Vermonters have gotten the Omicron booster, putting the state on a slower pace than previous booster campaigns, according to data from the state Department of Health.

Vermont pharmacies, health providers and walk-in clinics began offering the booster, also called the bivalent vaccine, to the general population three weeks ago. In 2021, more than 100,000 people got the booster in the first three weeks after Vermont opened eligibility to high-risk people and people 65 and older.

Anne Sosin, a health equity researcher at Dartmouth College, said it was still “relatively early” in the campaign, especially since people who have recently contracted Covid are recommended to wait until their immunity wears off.

But she said there were “reasons for concern” about the slow uptake, given that the United States has had “increasing incoherence in (its) Covid response.”

In a “60 Minutes” interview earlier this month, President Joe Biden said the pandemic was “over,” leading to criticism from some public health experts and officials.

“There’s been consistent refrains that the pandemic is over, that Covid represents a low risk, and so many don’t really see the reason to get boosted at this moment in time,” Sosin said. “We really need an active effort to counter that messaging.”

Vermont isn’t the only state that has struggled with its latest booster campaign: Less than 2% of eligible Americans got the shot in the first three weeks of the rollout, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The bivalent booster dose targets the Omicron strain along with older strains of the virus. Experts say it provides increased protection against the variants currently circulating throughout the country.

Sosin pointed out that not only does the vaccine defend against severe outcomes — like hospitalization and death — but it could play a role in limiting the virus’ disruption of schools, workplaces and communities when Vermonters get sick.

“While older populations will incur the most health benefits, there are real reasons for young people to boost this fall,” Sosin said.

Almost half of the bivalent vaccine recipients were Vermonters 65 and older, health department data shows.

Recent vaccine campaigns have seen lower and lower uptake, both for boosters and for the newly eligible group of young children. Before the bivalent vaccine became available, only 37% of Vermonters were up to date on their vaccines, including recommended booster doses, according to the health department vaccine dashboard.

Monica Ogleby, chief of the immunization program at the health department, said the number of bivalent boosters was in line with their expectations, given the “pretty consistent trend” that as “new vaccines come out, the uptick in demand might look a little bit different, a little bit lower each time.”

They are still “assuming, hoping (and) planning” for about 50 to 60% of eligible Vermonters to eventually get the bivalent booster, she said.

In June, the health department announced it would close most of its mass vaccination clinics and shut down its appointment portal, instead favoring walk-in clinics. The department’s data shows that Vermonters are taking advantage of them: About 56% of bivalent vaccinations performed so far were at EMS-run clinics across the state.

“We basically just shifted the resources to be more flexible to meet the community needs,” Olgeby said.

Starting last week, state-run clinics also offer the flu vaccine for people under 65 years old alongside Covid vaccinations. Ogleby said 650 people had gotten the flu vaccine at clinics so far, with another 25,000 people receiving the flu vaccine at other locations like pharmacies.

About 37% of bivalent Covid boosters were administered at pharmacies, with the rest performed at doctor’s offices, hospitals and congregate facilities, department data shows.

Sosin pointed out that the state’s reliance on pharmacies for vaccinations comes at a time of serious staffing shortages for many major chains. When she got vaccinated in the Northeast Kingdom in early September, she said, employees told her that the pharmacy had been closed for the previous nine days because of staffing issues.

“​​Layering vaccination on to a fragmented, private, commercial pharmacy system that’s already functioning unevenly is really not a formula for success,” she said. “We really do need state run clinics to ensure that everyone has access to boosters right now.”

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