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Patient group calls for recurring COVID-19 boosters to cut through vaccine apathy

  • Fewer than one in three Americans have received a COVID-19 vaccine booster
  • A patient safety nonprofit says a recurring booster schedule would improve vaccination.
  • Some expert disagree with additional boosters, citing a lack of data.

Fewer than one in three Americans have received an extra shot of the COVID-19 vaccine and one patient safety group thinks that's a public health challenge. 

The nonprofit ECRI said in a position paper that adopting a booster shot schedule targeting emerging variants would create certainty and convince more Americans to get boosted and help reduce COVID-19 spread in communities.

“This is the call to action,” said Marcus Schabacker, president and CEO of ECRI, a patient safety nonprofit. “Only 30% of people who are eligible to get vaccinated actually have a booster. It's not enough if we want to get this (pandemic) into an endemic state.”

Federal health agencies have cleared vaccine boosters for adults and teens, and last week, for kids ages 5 to 11. The FDA is reviewing Moderna’s vaccine for younger children. Pfizer-BioNTech on Monday said its COVID-19 vaccine appears to be safe and effective for kids under 5.

Federal health officials authorized a second booster shot for adults over 50 and immunocompromised people over 12. 

Schabacker argues the trickling of booster recommendations has left the public confused and skeptical about when or whether people should get another shot beyond the first two doses. Cases are again on the rise even though hospitalizations have not significantly increased. 

He believes the initial expectation the first two doses would prevent most cases is partly to blame for so many adults choosing to skip the extra shots. As more people see vaccinated friends and family get infected with breakthrough cases as omicron variants circulate, "people are skeptical" about the need for an extra shot, he said.

"What is lost in the translation is it's keeping you out of the hospital. It's keeping you from dying," Schabacker said.

If the vaccine booster became routine like annual flu shots, he believes more people would be willing to take the extra COVID-19 jab. People know the flu vaccine is recommended each year at the beginning of the fall with the possibility of a booster shot during particularly bad flu seasons. 

If COVID-19 vaccine boosters are routinely administered like flu vaccines, Schabacker said it could head off another big surge of cases that could surface this fall. 

'Virus will be with us for decades'

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla this week warned of "constant waves" of COVID-19 as people become more complacent about following safety measures, the Financial Times reported Wednesday. He cited complacency, politicization and fewer people willing to get booster shots as factors that would lead to new waves of cases. 

But others say evidence does not yet support a routine booster shot push beyond what federal officials have recommended.

A Food and Drug Administration advisory panel will chart the course of the nation's booster campaign on June 28 when it evaluates whether the vaccine should be updated this fall to protect against a different strain of the COVID-19 virus.

Some experts are not convinced the vaccine should be modified at all, or whether more boosters are needed.

“The (Biden) administration needs to make the case why this needs to be a yearly vaccine,” said Dr. Paul Offit, a member of FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee and director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. 

Offit says the existing two-shot primary vaccination and a single booster do a sufficient job of protecting most people from severe illness, hospitalization and death. He said while a fourth booster would provide temporary protection from mild illness for three to six months, it's unrealistic to expect the overall population to routinely seek extra shots. 

"This virus will be with us for decades, if not centuries, as has been true for the other coronaviruses," Offit said. "We can't boost every six months as a way to to protect ourselves from all symptomatic illness."

'Not just a U.S. problem'

Christina Johns, a pediatrician and senior medical advisor for PM Pediatric Care, said the timing of the booster authorizations also likely limited the number of people who chose the extra shots.

With the omicron variant sweeping through schools already, many parents likely decided children who were vaccinated but not yet boosted didn't need the extra shot after getting infected with COVID-19. 

Johns said such a belief provides a "false sense of security" because studies have shown the strength and durability of natural immunity varies. 

Still, she does not believe there's enough medical evidence yet to show adults or kids should get a yearly COVID-19 booster shot.

"I do not think that we have sufficient data at this time to be able to make that call," Johns said. 

Schabacker said any regular booster schedule should be supported by research and must extend beyond borders. He cited studies from Israel and Sweden showing the benefits of a fourth shot – a second booster shot – in certain populations. 

"It's not just a U.S. problem," Schabacker said. "We need to get the right people at the table and give clear recommendations to the population of the world." 

Ken Alltucker is on Twitter at @kalltucker, or can be emailed at alltuck@usatoday.com.