Nearly two years ago, the first COVID-19 vaccine was made available to the public, and people struggled to get doses as Indiana made vaccines available in a rollout that prioritized the most vulnerable.
When the bivalent booster, which has been updated to offer stronger protection against newer strains, hit the market a few months ago, he was met with a very different reaction.
To date, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Protection, just over 10% of people nationwide who are eligible for the booster — a category that includes anyone 5 years and older — have done so. In Indiana, just under 9% of those eligible for the booster have received a booster shot, according to the Indiana Department of Health.
And it’s not clear what it would take to increase those percentages.
A Kaiser Family Foundation poll published online in late September found that half of adults had not heard of the new booster, which targets the original strain and the Omicron variant.
While public health reports of the vaccine have increased since then, public interest has not necessarily followed suit.
Vaccine hesitation can be explained by the “three Cs” here, said Katharine Head, director of the Health Communications PhD program at IUPUI and associate professor of communication studies: lack of confidence in the vaccine; a lack of convenience when it comes to finding a vaccine; and complacency about the risk of catching COVID-19.
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On a recent morning, the Marion County Health Department’s Vaccine Clinic at College Ave Library saw no visitors for nearly an hour, although clinic staff were ready and waiting.
Then Vincent Baker, 59, came in for his third COVID-19 shot after seeing a TV message encouraging people to get the booster.
Baker, who picked the location because he works about 10 minutes away, said he hasn’t had COVID-19 and has no desire to see that change.
“I want to take everything I have to take to not have it,” he said.
Baker knocks on 60’s door and finds himself in good company among his soon-to-be colleagues. While the percentage of Indiana residents overall who have received the refresher is in the single digits, more than 20% of Hoosiers ages 60-69 and more than 29% of Hoosiers ages 70-79 have received the refresher.
Compare that to 20-29 year olds, just over 2% of whom received a boost.
Public health and health communications experts find the dismal vaccine uptake statistics unsurprising given the widespread fatigue over an issue we are all more than ready to be over and done with – COVID-19.
“As with anything that’s heavily overcast, we can become desensitized to that, and we’re very desensitized to COVID information right now, particularly in relation to immunizations,” said Katharine Head, director of the PhD program in Health Communications at IUPUI and Associate Professor in Communication Studies. “I think we also had some messaging errors in terms of how we talked about vaccines.”
Lack of confidence in vaccines
It’s not new to anyone that the overall uptake of the vaccine hasn’t met the expectations of public health experts. Nationally, about 68% of the population received primary doses of the vaccine. Just like with the booster, a smaller percentage of Hoosiers did — just over 55% of the state’s population, according to the Indiana Department of Health.
However, convincing parents to vaccinate their children has proven to be a hard sell. In Indiana, fewer than a quarter of children ages 5 to 11 have received their first doses of COVID-19 vaccines, according to state statistics.
Adults are more likely to get vaccinated and have their children vaccinated when a trusted provider talks to them about the importance of the vaccine, said Shandy Dearth, director of the Center for Public Health Practice at IUPUI’s Fairbanks School of Public Health.
Convenience of Obtaining Vaccines
One reason fewer people have embraced this new booster could be a question of availability, Head said. The initial primary vaccine and booster doses were initially available primarily from large vaccination centers such as Indianapolis Motor Speedway, rather than from doctors or pharmacies as is more common for the annual flu shot.
While local health departments still offer vaccination clinics like the one where Baker was vaccinated, there are fewer of these mass clinics. Doctors may offer the vaccine even though many don’t have it in their offices, leaving people to find it themselves at pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens or on the state Department of Health’s website or by calling 211.
The state health department has a mobile immunization unit that visits different communities each week, Jeni O’Malley, a department spokeswoman, said in an email.
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State health officials say they are not surprised that people have been slow to adopt this new booster.
“Indiana’s rate reflects national rates, and as we’ve seen with previous vaccine launches, it takes time for rates to increase as new formulations or vaccines become available,” O’Malley said in an email.
People can just be complacent
COVID-19 fatigue is a reality, experts agree, and people are all too eager to believe that if they ever did, the virus is nothing to worry about anymore.
But the reality is that COVID-19, which has so far killed more than 1 million people in the United States and is still responsible for hospitalizing about 3,400 people a day, continues to sicken and even kill people.
While vaccination does not provide perfect protection against disease, numerous studies have shown that it significantly reduces the risk of serious illness or hospitalization.
Additionally, many people could assume that if they had COVID-19 once, they are now protected from getting it again, Dearth said. Instead, some people have become infected again just 30 days after an initial infection.
“A lot of people assume they may have more immunity than they really have,” she said. “It really isn’t.”
And experts agree that people often don’t take action to protect themselves until they feel vulnerable.
When the flu peaks each winter, people are often motivated to get vaccinated against the flu, said Melissa McMasters, the department’s immunizations and infectious diseases administrator.
“Unfortunately, there will be an outbreak … people who are struggling to access care before they get the attention they need,” McMasters said.
Contact IndyStar reporter Shari Rudavsky at [email protected]