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Bivalent Covid vaccines have been available in Washington for four months, but few roll up sleeves to get them

A map of Washington, showing the percentage of people who have gotten bivalent booster shots, by county.
Washington Department of Health

Fewer than one in three eligible Washingtonians have gotten the bivalent boosters tailored to fight omicron variants. That’s higher than the national average, but far lower than state health officials had hoped.

There are a number of reasons for the low uptake. Coronavirus is perceived as less of a threat. Vaccinations across the board are down. And active misinformation and disinformation campaigns have sown doubt about the safety, efficacy and value of coronavirus vaccines.

Lacey Fehrenbach, the Washington Department of Health’s chief of safety, prevention and health, said bivalent vaccines are still important, even if people think the threat from Covid is ebbing.

“As we go through this respiratory virus season, we want people to be up to date on all of their vaccines, including their annual flu vaccine and their bivalent booster for Covid, so that they and others are protected from -- especially severe disease -- but the current circulating variants and subvariants of concern,” Fehrenbach said.

As of January 16, the state Department of Health reported 29.6 percent of eligible Washingtonians had gotten a bivalent booster. That’s above the county averages in the Spokane area. One in four eligible people in Spokane County had received a booster shot. Nearby counties had similar figures: 25 percent in Pend Oreille, 22 percent in Lincoln and Ferry, and 24 percent in Stevens and Whitman.

People who have not yet gotten a bivalent booster should talk to their medical provider for more information, Fehrenbach said. The bivalent shots are better than relying on the assumption that Covid poses little to no threat at this point in its evolution, she added.

“It’s not 100 percent. Some people will still have a breakthrough infection,” Fehrenbach said. “But really, really importantly, [a booster shot] broadens your protection against severe disease, including the need to be hospitalized, ventilated, and death, which we absolutely want to avoid.”

Fehrenbach was more encouraged by other statistics that show 71 percent of Washingtonians are fully vaccinated with an original course of vaccine, and that 60 percent of eligible people in the state got any kind of booster shot.

Still, the 29.6 percent uptake for the more recent bivalent boosters gives state health officials pause.

“More is better, absolutely,” Fehrenbach said. “This winter, we really want anyone – everyone – who is eligible to get that bivalent booster [to get it]. For the broad population, we have a lot of room for improvement in Washington, and in the nation.”

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.