RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — The push for the new bivalent COVID-19 boosters is off to a relatively slow start in North Carolina.
Less than half as many people received the new omicron-specific boosters during the first four weeks all adults could get them as compared to the first booster last fall, a CBS17.com data analysis found.
Dr. David Wohl, an infectious disease specialist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, said he’s “not happy” with the relatively low booster numbers in the month they’ve been available.
“We don’t do a good job in our country of getting boosted,” Wohl said.
A total of 275,982 doses of the new booster shots have been given in North Carolina in the four weeks since they were approved in late August, according to data from the state Department of Health and Human Services.
And no matter how you add it up, the pace is way behind what it was at the same stage for the previous booster in 2021.
Older, more vulnerable people could get the first round of booster shots in the summer of 2021, but it wasn’t until Nov. 19 that all adults were allowed to get one.
NCDHHS began publishing its booster totals Nov. 24 of that year, and that day’s count of nearly 1.4 million undoubtedly included many of those who received theirs months earlier.
By Dec. 22, the four-week mark, the running total climbed past 2.2 million — meaning about 900,000 doses were recorded in that 28-day period alone.
Any time a new vaccine or booster shot is developed, there is inevitably a subset of people who are first in line to get it — the “hand-raisers,” as Wohl called them.
It sure looks like there are fewer of them now than there were a year ago.
“The hand-raisers are people who really understand the vaccine, they understand the value of the vaccine, and they don’t want to get COVID-19,” Wohl said. “They certainly don’t want to get really sick.”
NCDHHS has not released any demographic information about the more than a quarter of a million people who have received a bivalent booster so far, but Wohl says they tended to be “older people who flooded the pharmacies and the clinics at first.
“That’s what you’re seeing in the (275,000) or so,” he added. “Then, it’s going to trail off.”
Dr. Atul Grover, the executive director of the Association of American Medical Colleges Research and Action Institute, chalks part of it up to pandemic fatigue.
“I do think that people have become sort of less urgently worried about this problem,” Grover said. “And even the people that we see that haven’t gotten a booster yet kind of say, ‘Yeah, I’ll get it,’ or, ‘Well, when I get around to it.’ And I think that’s very different now.”
Another part of the issue could be that some people simply have to wait a while longer for the booster — because they caught COVID recently.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends waiting three months after a COVID infection before getting the new booster. NCDHHS data show roughly 330,000 cases from June 24-Sept. 24, the most recent data available — and that’s an undercount because so many cases are caught with home testing that doesn’t factor into those totals.
What if you’re fully vaccinated but missed the old booster?
No problem, Wohl says — you can still get the new one without any issue.
“This is not necessarily a cumulative thing,” he said. “You take the new vaccine, you get the protection from the new vaccine.”
The new booster is vital because it’s the first time a vaccine has matched the variant that’s most common: The BA.5 subvariant still accounts for about 80 percent of samples that are checked in sequencing labs across the state and has made up at least three-quarters of samples for two full months.
There’s always a concern, though, that the vaccine might not be as effective against the next variant, whatever it winds up becoming.
“That’s always the risk, and that’s, again, the arms race that we're having against this virus. Will the virus run out of tricks?” Wohl said. “Will it hit sort of a slog or a brick wall where it can't really mutate as much anymore? Maybe, maybe not. This has shown an incredible affinity, this virus, to mutate wildly.
“But BA.5 has been hanging around for a long time,” he added. “So it's going to stick around for a while. As long as it sticks around, the current vaccines will work really, really well. Now, something could come down the pike. That's why we need better vaccines in the future that cover more broadly.”
CBS 17’s Joedy McCreary has been tracking COVID-19 figures since March 2020, compiling data from federal, state, and local sources to deliver a clear snapshot of what the coronavirus situation looks like now and what it could look like in the future.