Getting a booster vaccine significantly increases protection against a COVID-19 infection – especially from the omicron variant.
Despite this, only about a quarter of Alaskans 5 and older are both vaccinated and boosted. The number of shots has also dropped significantly in recent weeks, health providers say.
The CDC currently recommends booster shots for anyone aged 12 and overfive months after receiving two doses of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, or two months after a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
The advent of variants like omicron has translated into diminishing protection from people’s first vaccine series and increased the importance of booster shots. Many surveys has associated booster shots with fewer hospital admissions and a significant increase in protection against an omicron infection – from around 30% to up to 75%.
Dr. Lisa Rabinowitz, a chief physician at the State Department of Health, said she believes the lower booster rate has to do with changing the public health guidelines, a lack of awareness of how useful booster shots have been to ward off omicron and general COVID- 19 fatigue.
“It has been confusing and the guidance has changed often,” she said.
There are also people who have had COVID-19 and who may think they are protected against it and did not need to be boosted – which is not true, she said. While natural immunity to an infection may provide some protection against re-infection, data from the CDC has also shown that being vaccinated after receiving COVID-19 significantly improves immune protection and further reduces the risk of re-infection.
Alaska’s booster rate has varied by demographic, especially age, Rabinowitz said.
“We have clearly seen older, more vulnerable populations get a boost,” whereas the rate has been much lower among younger, healthier people.
Younger people may not think they need the extra protection, or are unaware of how much extra protection you can get with the booster, she said.
By Thursday, state data showed that about half of all Alaska residents 65 and older – a more high-risk age group – had been vaccinated and boosted, while only 15% had not received any of the three shots.
That compares with 26% of the total eligible population being boosted – and a third not getting a shot at all.
Still, while Alaska is in the middle of the herd when it comes to its overall vaccination rate, its booster rate is actually slightly above the national average by a few percentage points, Rabinowitz pointed out, attributing this fact to strong public messages about the importance of boosters.
Nationwide, about 43% of all those who completed their initial vaccine series are eligible for a booster shot, but have not received one yet, CDC shows data. In Alaska, that figure is about 45%.
In recent weeks, Alaska’s overall rate of both booster shots and first and second doses has continued to decline. State dashboard data showed a 52% drop in shots this week compared to the week before.
At a vaccine clinic in Shiloh Baptist Church in Anchorage this week, nurse Kadie Hansen and her colleague Tom Wilson sat alone in an empty living room. Since then, only one person had turned up to get a shot within the last three days, Hansen said.
Hansen said she thinks it’s because most people who want to get a syringe have already got one, and that the deadline for most workplace vaccine mandates has come and gone.
On the other side of town, at a vaccine clinic in the Tikahtnu Commons, staff bet on how many people would show up that day for shots.
Kimberly Wells, an on-site nurse manager, guessed nine. Colleagues guessed six and 16. By noon there were only three people past.
Wells reflected on the marked difference in her working days between now and last year. There was a day last year where she had to vaccinate 152 people in one day, all alone.
“Time is definitely going slower now,” she said.