Getting a vaccine booster shot significantly increases protection against a COVID-19 infection — especially from the omicron variant.
Despite that, only about a quarter of the Alaskans 5 and older are both vaccinated and boosted. The rate of shots also has slowed considerably in recent weeks, health providers say.
The CDC currently recommends booster shots for anyone 12 and older, five months after they’ve gotten two doses of vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, or two months after a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
The rise of variants like omicron have translated to waning protection from people’s initial vaccine series and increased the importance of booster shots. Multiple studies have linked booster shots to fewer hospitalizations and a significant increase in protection against an omicron infection — from around 30% to up to 75%.
Dr. Lisa Rabinowitz, a staff physician with the state health department, said she thinks the lower booster rate has to do with changing public health guidance, a lack of awareness about how helpful booster shots have been at warding off omicron and general COVID-19 fatigue.
“It’s been confusing, and guidance has changed often,” she said.
There are also people who have had COVID-19, and may believe that they are protected from that and didn’t need to get boosted — which isn’t true, she said. While natural immunity from an infection can give some protection against reinfection, data from the CDC has also shown that getting vaccinated after having COVID-19 significantly improves immune protection and further reduces the risk of reinfection.
Alaska’s booster rate has varied by demographics, especially age, Rabinowitz said.
“We definitely saw that elderly, more at-risk populations get boosted,” whereas the rate has been much lower among younger, healthier people.
Younger people may not believe they need that 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 Alaskans 65 and older — a more high-risk age group — were vaccinated and boosted, while just 15% hadn’t received any of the three shots.
That compares to 26% of Alaskans 5 and up who’ve been boosted — and a third who hadn’t got a shot at all.
Still, while Alaska is in the middle of the pack when it comes to its overall vaccination rate, its booster rate is actually slightly above the national average by a couple of percentage points, Rabinowitz pointed out, attributing that fact to strong public messaging about the importance of boosters.
Nationwide, about 43% of everyone who completed their initial vaccine series is eligible for a booster shot but hasn’t gotten one yet, CDC data shows. In Alaska, that number 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% decrease in shots this week compared to the week before.
At a vaccine clinic at the Shiloh Baptist Church in Anchorage this week, nurse Kadie Hansen and her colleague Tom Wilson sat alone in an empty recreation room. The site had just one person show up to get a shot in the last three days, Hansen said.
Hansen said she thinks that stems from the fact that most people who want to get a shot have gotten one already, and that the deadline for most workplace vaccine mandates have come and gone.
On the other side of town, at a vaccine clinic located in Tikahtnu Commons, staff took bets on how many people would show up that day for shots.
Kimberly Wells, a nurse manager at the site, guessed nine. Colleagues guessed six and 16. By noon, just three people had stopped by.
Wells reflected on the stark difference in her work days between now and last year. There was one day last year where she’d had to vaccinate 152 people in one day, all by herself.
“Time definitely passes more slowly now,” she said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly characterized the overall population in an examination of Alaska booster shot rates. Twenty-six percent of Alaskans age 5 and older have been boosted, not 26% of the total eligible population.