Health officials fear complacency as new omicron COVID boosters roll out

For Megan Wong of San Jose, there never was much question in her mind whether she’d get the new omicron-specific COVID-19 vaccine booster when it became available. The human resources worker has trips planned across the country to New Orleans, Nashville and Tampa, and feels like earlier shots have protected her.

The first updated COVID vaccine formula since the shots first rolled out in late 2020 is designed to protect against the highly contagious omicron variants BA.4 and BA.5 as well as the original strain. And Wong was among the first in line when Santa Clara County health officials started giving out boosters Wednesday.

“It felt like a really obvious choice to me,” Wong, 36, said after getting the shot at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds vaccine clinic Wednesday. “COVID isn’t gone, and I think it’s just better to take any precautions that you can.”

Health officials wish more people felt the same way, but fear the boosters will be a tough sell this fall. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that COVID transmission rates remain high in the Bay Area and in nearly 90% of U.S. counties.

But while two out of three Americans and three out of four Californians have been vaccinated, just half in the U.S. and 56% in California have had one booster shot and only one in three over age 50 have had two boosters. And those numbers fall for younger people. Just 28% of adults ages 18-49 have had one booster and just 17% of 12-17-year-olds have had one booster.

The new booster, available to those 12 and up who had their last shot at least two months ago, targets the highly contagious omicron variants. But so many people have now had COVID and recovered that many are prone to thinking they don’t need the vaccines — or that they aren’t much help.

Dr. Oliver Brooks, Chief Medical Officer at Watts Healthcare, said in a news conference Wednesday that while health officials earlier in the pandemic faced concerns about public confidence in the safety of the vaccines and how difficult it would be to get the shots, they now are worried about public complacency.

“We no longer feel like we need to get vaccinated,” Brooks said, adding he hears patients say that “everybody gets COVID even if they get vaccinated,” and most are just fine, so they don’t bother with the shots.

“There are a lot of facts people misunderstand,” Brooks said, arguing that avoiding “long COVID,” the little-understood syndrome of lingering symptoms of the disease, should be enough of a motivator for people to get the latest vaccines.

State and national health officials urge people to think of the COVID shots more like those for influenza, which are updated and given annually.

“Were getting closer to an analogy with the flu vaccines where as you know, every year we have to get an updated vaccine in sync with the strains circulating around the world,” said Dr. Gil Chávez, deputy director of the California Department of Public Health Center for Infectious Diseases.

Chávez said he’s had COVID-19, and credits the vaccines with making it a mild case.

“I did have an encounter with COVID and thanks to the vaccine I did have a mild illness,” Chávez said. “My children have been vaccinated and boosted had mild illness.”

At the fairgrounds, Dr. Jennifer Tong, associate chief medical officer at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, said that omicron booster appointments had filled quickly on Wednesday, but appointments were still available and more would open up as supplies increase.

Dennis and Catherine Stewart said they had little trouble getting an appointment. After an unsuccessful attempt to schedule boosters with a commercial pharmacy — they got an appointment, but the pharmacy told them when they arrived that the shots hadn’t arrived yet — the Los Gatos couple just drove over to the fairgrounds and got appointments on the spot.

It would be their fifth COVID shots, but they weren’t put off by that one bit.

“I believe in vaccinations,” Catherine Stewart, 73, said. “Everyone in our family is getting the shots when they’re available and all of our grandchildren have had the shots.”

Some at the clinic were still getting their primary vaccination, which use the original rather than the updated formula.

“They barely convinced me after all these years,” said Anthony Cabrera, 22, of San Jose, who came for his second primary series dose. He said his mother had been on him to get vaccinated.

Tong said she’s familiar with patients’ COVID fatigue, but argues a good reason to get the boosters is that “we don’t know what next year brings.”

“We don’t know what new variants might come our way,” Tong said. “As much as we would all like to think that it’s over, we don’t know if it’s over or not.”

But Wong, who came to the fairgrounds with a friend, didn’t need any convincing.

“I didn’t get COVID for two years after it first happened and then when I had it, I was completely asymptomatic and I have to think that’s in part to being vaccinated,” she said. “You can only control what you can control and I can control getting vaccinated. We were just patiently waiting and just stoked to find out today’s the day.”

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