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There's more demand for boosters than first shots of the COVID vaccine

Hattie Pierce, 75, receives a Pfizer covid-19 vaccine booster shot from Dr. Tiffany Taliaferro at the Safeway on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Monday, October 4, 2021.
Hattie Pierce, 75, receives a Pfizer covid-19 vaccine booster shot from Dr. Tiffany Taliaferro at the Safeway on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Monday, October 4, 2021.

The number of people getting COVID-19 vaccine boosters in the U.S. is now far outpacing the number getting their first shots, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That trend represents a big success for White House's aggressive booster campaign. But it also underscores the administration's flagging effort to achieve its high priority of vaccinating the remaining unvaccinated Americans.

More than 21 million people have already received a booster in the short time they've been widely available, according to the CDC website. And more than 786,000 are getting boosters every day now on average. That's nearly triple the number coming in for their first shots, though the rollout to kids under 12 could potentially change that equation.

This isn't a big surprise: The same people who rushed to get their first jabs are apparently just as eager for their third, and with the booster recommendations announced late October, two out of every three vaccinated people are eligible, according to some estimates.

The trend is being praised by many public health experts. Boosters will help protect people who may have become more vulnerable because of waning immunity, especially against the delta variant. That will help prevent more people from getting sick or spreading the virus to others, and should prevent hospitalizations and deaths.

"I think the folks who are eligible for boosters should get them," says Dr. Robert Wachter, chair of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. "The data are clear that your immunity wanes and that's not good for you or good for the community if more people become vulnerable."

But some worry the focus on boosters has distracted from the more important goal of vaccinating the tens of millions of people who are eligible but still haven't gotten vaccinated. As of Thursday, over 222 million Americans, or 67% of the population, had gotten at least their first shot.

The large number of unvaccinated people is the primary reason that more than 70,000 people are still catching the virus every day, many hospitals are still overwhelmed, and more than a thousand are still dying every day.

"I think it's terrible," says Dr. Paul Offit, a vaccine and infectious disease researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. "If you look at the people over 12 who come into the intensive care unit at the hospital at the University of Pennsylvania, or the Children's Hospital, they're not in the intensive care unit because they didn't get their third dose, they're in the intensive care unit because haven't gotten any doses."

Offit calls the rush for extra shots "boostermania" — an unfounded panic triggered by the administration's promise of boosters for all that feeds dangerous doubts about the vaccines.

"We need to vaccinate the unvaccinated, not boost the vaccinated," he says.

Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, says she worries that the push for boosters just made it harder to convince the unvaccinated to finally roll up their sleeves.

"It made them think that perhaps they should just wait because perhaps a better vaccine would become available one day, that somehow we were still tinkering with the recipe," she says.

The government must work harder to get vaccine to people who can't take time off their jobs to get their shots, she says.

Offit would like even more vaccine mandates, such as like requiring people who want to fly domestically to get vaccinated first.

The latest CDC data shows that almost everyone who got the Pfizer or the Moderna vaccines originally are sticking with the same brand. But only about 18% of those who got the J&J went with that vaccine as a booster. That's after research showed one of the mRNA vaccines seems to do a much better job pumping up the immune system.

While currently only certain categories of people deemed to be high risk can get a booster, federal officials are already hinting that they could broaden eligibility for boosters even more.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.