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​Omicron Scare Boosts Booster Shots​

Experts say people look to local trusted vaccine messengers

woman shows her booster shot bandaid and a paper heart that says booster

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If there is a silver lining to the emergence of the latest COVID-19 variant of concern — omicron — Nebraska physician Mark Rupp says it may be that more people agree they need to get a vaccine or a booster.

The data seem to back up Rupp's hope. From Nov. 30, just after the Thanksgiving holiday, to Dec. 4, the average daily number of booster shots went from just over 576,000 to almost 906,000. As of Dec. 10, just about 25 percent of those who are fully vaccinated had gotten a booster, with an even higher percentage of older adults getting a third Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna shot or a second shot if their first dose was the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Among the fully vaccinated, 38 percent of Americans 50 and older and 49 percent of those 65 and older have received a booster.

The latest variant has alerted people that this pandemic is not over, says Robert Blendon, a health policy expert at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. "Nobody is now saying that at New Year's we'll be celebrating the end of this event," says Blendon, who has been analyzing public opinion on health for decades. "They're now suddenly giving you Christmas warnings." Recent polls show "that the presence of the third variant clearly is having a psychological effect on people."

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Still some vaccine uncertainty, hesitancy

Blendon and Rupp, chief of the division of infectious diseases at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, agree that even among those who decided to take the first course of COVID-19 vaccine, there is not universal consensus that they should get the booster.

Rupp says that at first there was confusion among people about who should get a booster. It wasn't very long ago, he notes, that the experts were saying the boosters were just for high-risk patients. That advice changed a bit with the delta variant, but with the emergence of omicron, "the message has become, 'You really should go get this and get it now.'"

COVID complacency and exhaustion are also playing a role among some people who initially decided to get a vaccine but are not rushing out for a booster, he says.  

"People are extremely tired of hearing about this," Rupp observes. "They deeply wish that this pandemic was just gone. And some folks mistakenly believe that if they just ignore it, that's the way to best deal with it." Blendon says that a recent Quinnipiac poll found that 46 percent of adults said they are emotionally exhausted from COVID.

Local trusted messengers are best

Blendon believes that the key to getting more people to go for vaccines and boosters is finding messengers whom people trust.

"There's so much distrust of the government in this divided country," he says — even of scientists if they are associated with Washington. "The groups that are more trusted are physicians where people live. In my view, the chair of infectious disease at Baylor should be on TV every night in Texas. The chair of infectious disease at Baptist Hospital in Tennessee should be talking about why they are telling their patients and their own families to take the vaccine, why they believe a booster will help you through this." It won't matter, Blendon adds, "that a panel in Washington tells me to do this or that."

Rupp agrees that local leaders can likely sway people more than national figures. "Here in my state of Nebraska, especially the rural part of Nebraska, it just bleeds Cornhusker red," Rupp says, referring to the University of Nebraska football team. So when former legendary Cornhuskers coach Tom Osborne did a public service announcement urging people to get vaccinated, Rupp believes that was effective.

So, he says, are conversations he has with patients he believes are not dug-in anti-vaxers. Particularly those patients who were willing to get the first dose or doses, "generally, [they] need a very, very gentle little nudge in the right direction and they very readily say, 'OK, I'm ready for my booster.'"

Rural challenges exist

While the nationwide supply of booster doses does not seem to be an issue, Rupp says rural residents face certain logistical challenges that those in urban areas do not.

"There's a real backlash against vaccination," Rupp points out. "These are people who pride themselves on their individualism, communities that pride themselves on being independent, being self-reliant, and they really react negatively when folks are telling them what it is that they have to do" — whether it be to wear a mask or to get a COVID-19 vaccination.

Even though the supply of vaccines is adequate now, Rupp says, "it does take more planning and effort" and may require a miles-long drive to a town just to find a shot. "It's not as easy as those of us who live in urban areas who can't throw a rock without hitting a CVS or Walgreens." He adds that it's also a challenge for older people who live alone and can't get out to get a shot.

Dena Bunis covers Medicare, health care, health policy and Congress. She also writes the “Medicare Made Easy” column for the AARP Bulletin. An award-winning journalist, Bunis spent decades working for metropolitan daily newspapers, including as Washington bureau chief for the Orange County Register and as a health policy and workplace writer for Newsday.