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Seven weeks into bivalent booster campaign, Washington uptake is low

Percentage of Washingtonians who received a bivalent booster, as of October 17.
Washington Department of Health
Percentage of Washingtonians who received a bivalent booster, as of October 17.

Thirteen percent of eligible Washingtonians have gotten a bivalent booster shot, far fewer than state health officials had hoped would roll up their sleeves.

The bivalent boosters, tailored to fight the original strain of coronavirus and the more recent omicron variant, arrived in Washington the week of September 5. The Washington Department of Health touted the boosters as a good way to protect the public against the most severe effects of the virus ahead of what could be another winter surge.

But in the nearly two months since, a fraction of the 5.6 million people eligible for a bivalent booster have gotten one, according to the health department.

“It’s slow going,” Michelle Roberts, the department’s Assistant Secretary for Prevention and Community Health said. “We are concerned.”

Nearly 31,000 people in Spokane County have received a bivalent booster as of October 17, but that’s just one-tenth of the eligible population. Other eastern Washington counties were roughly on the same level. Booster rates ranged from a high of 10.4 percent in Pend Oreille County to a low of 3.7 percent in Adams County, according to state Department of Health data.

Unlike the initial round of vaccinations in early 2021, health officials are no longer targeting a specific percentage to achieve herd immunity, Roberts said. But she would like to see 60 to 70 percent of eligible Washingtonians get the bivalent booster before the deepest part of winter.

The coming winter could pack a double punch, as flu cases could rise after two years of relative quiescence. The first flu death of the 2022-23 season was reported in Spokane County this week. The potential of a double surge has some health officials worried, Roberts said.

Concurrent surges – if they happen -- could again strain hospitals and other health care facilities, as was the case with previous Covid surges. In those previous waves, non-emergency procedures and some routine care had to be delayed.

Roberts acknowledged the current dominant coronavirus strains in the U.S. appear to be producing fewer hospitalizations and deaths. But she cautioned the world isn’t out of the woods with Covid yet. The disease is still considered pandemic, not endemic. And even when that threshold is crossed, it won’t mean the virus poses zero threat.

“When we get to an endemic [phase], it’s just a more predictable, lower level of disease. But any disease that’s endemic, including flu, can always cause severe outcomes for different people,” Roberts said. “That’s going to be an ongoing concern. And the best thing we can do is use the protective measures we have available to us. At the forefront is the importance of regular vaccinations.”

While interest in bivalent boosters has been lagging, Roberts said she is much more encouraged by a different statistic: The 59 percent of Washingtonians age five and older who have gotten any booster shot since last autumn.

People interested in getting a bivalent booster can check local availability by entering their ZIP code into the Washington online vaccine locator, by calling the Department of Health at 1-833-829-4357, or by texting their ZIP code to 438-829 or 822-862. More information can be found at the Department of Health’s website.

In the holiday season ahead, Roberts recommended augmenting vaccination through physical distancing, and by using at-home Covid tests to help determine infection before travel or gatherings.

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for fifteen years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.