About 5% of N.J. residents have updated COVID boosters, state says

By: - October 6, 2022 7:05 am

Experts say COVID fatigue and poor public messaging are reasons why so few people have signed up to get their newest boosters. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

About 5% of New Jerseyans eligible for a second COVID-19 booster have received one, according to state health officials.

Roughly 358,000 people eligible have received updated booster shots as of Oct. 5, said Nancy Kearney, spokeswoman for the Department of Health — a number low enough to be troubling as epidemiologists warn of a potential repeat of last year’s winter COVID spike.

“It’s gotten more complicated, and we’ve had this conflicting messaging,” said Stephanie Silvera, an epidemiologist and public health professor at Montclair State University. “I think you have general hesitancy, and you have people tired of hearing about the pandemic across all sorts of political and social beliefs.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the fall vaccination campaign earlier this month, urging Americans over the age of 12 to roll up their sleeves for a new booster. The bivalent booster targets the most common strains of omicron with components of the original vaccine. The shots are already widely available at most pharmacies and are free of charge.

Since early September, about 2,000 new COVID cases have been announced daily, and fewer than 10 deaths have been reported each day, according to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard.

About 82% of New Jerseyans have received the initial vaccine since it became available in late 2020, and 54% of residents have their first booster shots, according to state data. About 6.2 million residents are eligible for the vaccine in New Jersey.

So why are so few people lining up to get their second boosters this time around? Experts chalk it up to COVID fatigue and a hope or belief that the COVID threat has disappeared.

“Unfortunately, we have the president saying the pandemic is over,” said Silvera, alluding to President Biden’s comments earlier this month. “So it makes it much harder to convince people to get vaccinated, because what is the purpose, right?”

The state Department of Health has continued its public awareness campaign through social media and canvassing in multiple languages. But Silvera believes more could be done to communicate the importance of the booster, both from the federal and state governments.

Confusion remains over who is eligible for the booster shot and whether it’s different than the last booster. (It is, because this one is bivalent and is targeted to the B.A.4 and B.A.5 variants, Silvera explained.)

“We need to do a better job of explaining to people what exactly the booster is targeting and the benefits to get vaccinated,” she said. “We need stronger and more robust public health messaging to craft messages that lay audiences can hear and understand and people can say, ‘I know this is the next step I should be taking.'”

Still, she realizes that politicians are moving to meet the majority of people in the middle when it comes to pandemic policies. But it’s important to continue making other investments, like improving air circulation in schools and public transit and masking through the winter to keep coronavirus cases under control.

Silvera is particularly concerned with this winter’s impending “twindemic” doctors are warning about — a rise in COVID and flu cases. She pointed to data from the United Kingdom, trends that the United States typically follows a few weeks later, showing a new variant that could subvert the omicron-targeted booster.

Kearny, the health department spokeswoman, said the state is in a “better position than a year ago with more people vaccinated and boosted.”

The state is allocated a weekly number of doses of Pfizer and Moderna shots, she said. As of Oct. 4, about 1,447,368 updated boosters have been ordered, and 1,378,668 have been delivered, she said. She said she isn’t aware of any updated boosters that have been discarded.

It’s important to be boosted because it protects against severe illness and hospitalization, Silvera said, noting that it’s likely that a COVID booster becomes an annual shot similar to the flu vaccine.

“The vaccine is just one tool in our prevention toolbox, not the only tool. We have to pair that with masking, improving ventilation, staying home when you feel sick,” she said. “We have to continue thinking about this from larger, broader systems.”

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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.