Conchita Malave, 100, of Freeport, gets a booster shot from registered nurse...

Conchita Malave, 100, of Freeport, gets a booster shot from registered nurse Abigail Fromm of Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital's Vaxmobile outside the Freeport Recreation Center. Credit: Danielle Silverman

Fewer than 4% of Long Islanders who completed their original vaccine series have received the latest COVID-19 booster shot, similar to low booster uptake rates statewide and nationally, according to a Newsday analysis of vaccination data.

Figures show 76,144 Long Islanders have received the updated booster as of Sept. 28, according to the state Department of Health. Statistics on the agency’s website show 2,179,999 people age 12 and up who live in Nassau and Suffolk counties have received their primary vaccine series, making them eligible for the latest booster.

That means that about 3.49% of Long Islanders who completed their primary vaccine series have gotten the updated booster.

Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Medicine, called reception and response to the latest booster “slow and low.”

WHAT TO KNOW

  • There has not been an enthusiastic response to the updated COVID-19 bivalent booster, designed to protect against the omicron variant, by the general public since it became available Aug. 31.
  • About 11.5 million people have received the booster in the United States, including 516,864 New Yorkers and 76,144 Long Islanders.
  • Some doctors said the focus should be on making sure people over the age of 65 and those with chronic health conditions get the booster as opposed to younger, healthier people.

“I do think there is a fatigue factor for some people,” she said.

Statewide, 516,864 people have received the booster, according to the most recent available data from the state Health Department as of Sept. 28. Federal data as of Oct. 6 shows 14,730,104 people over the age of 12 across the state have completed their primary COVID-19 vaccine series. That equals about 3.51% of New Yorkers who completed their primary vaccine series and have gotten the latest booster.

An individual has completed a primary vaccine series after receiving two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines or one dose of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Robert Baird, of Centereach, is given a booster shot as...

Robert Baird, of Centereach, is given a booster shot as members of the community are administered the COVID-19 vaccination and booster at Stony Brook University Research and Development Park, Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2021. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

The numbers for Long Island and New York are similar to national trends. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said about 11.5 million in the United States received the bivalent booster between Sept. 1 and Oct. 6.

That’s about 5.3% of the 216 million people over the age of 12 who completed their COVID-19 primary series. The national figure is likely higher because — due to reporting methods — it does not include some people who received the shot in Idaho and Texas, the agency said.

“The uptake is inconsistent and not as rapid as one might have hoped given that we are entering heightened respiratory disease season in North America,” said Perry N. Halkitis, dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health.

Fear of flu, COVID colliding

The rates concern some infectious disease experts, who worry about a possible winter wave of COVID-19 colliding with flu season in the coming months, though some predicted that more people will get shots if infections rise.

Flora Cato, 73, of Freeport, receives her updated booster shot...

Flora Cato, 73, of Freeport, receives her updated booster shot at Mount Sinai South Nassau’s Vaxmobile parked outside Freeport Recreation Center on Thursday. Credit: Danielle Silverman

There are multiple reasons why people may not be getting the shot, such as pandemic fatigue, not thinking the booster is needed after already getting multiple shots, or being unaware it even exists, experts said. Some of those who had COVID-19 are advised to wait three months before getting the updated booster. Additionally, people who received the old booster within the past two months have to wait to get the updated shot.

Still, experts said getting the updated “bivalent” booster shot, approved by the FDA on Aug. 31, is vital because it protects against both the original strains of the SARS CoV-2 virus and the dominant omicron subvariants that are responsible for almost all new infections in the United States. SARS CoV-2 is the virus that causes COVID-19.

Nachman compared the need for updated boosters with getting appropriate safety equipment in vehicles. “Nobody says ‘I don’t need an air bag. I have seat belts and I’m a safe driver.’ . . . Why would we do less with our health with vaccines?” she said.

During a recent stop by the Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital Vaxmobile outside the Freeport Recreation Center on Thursday, 37 people received the updated COVID-19 booster less than two hours after it opened.

Those waiting in line said they had heard hesitation from acquaintances and family about the latest shot.

Sarai Vias of Freeport was there with her mother, Conchita Malave, who turned 100 in July. Both women received the updated shot.

“I’m her caregiver and I have to be protected,” said Vias, 70. “A lot of people say [the updated booster] doesn’t help. I think anything will help, and I’ll do anything for my mother.”

Lourdes Rodriguez, 71, brought her 85-year-old sister Sonya Sanchez to the Vaxmobile site so they could both get the booster.

“My health is important and so is my sister’s,” Rodriguez said, adding she has not been able to convince her two children to get the booster. “I think it’s the best thing to do for everybody’s health.”

Calculating booster rates

To calculate the rates, Newsday looked at the number of people who received the latest booster based on information from both the state and the CDC. Newsday then compared it with the number of people over the age of 12 who completed their primary COVID-19 vaccine series.

State officials said they could not calculate an accurate percentage of how many New Yorkers are eligible for the updated booster because people who are under the age of 12 are not eligible, as well as people who have had the older booster shot within the past two months.

More people may be prompted to seek the updated booster if the rate of COVID-19 infections starts to rise, said Dr. David Hirschwerk, an infectious disease specialist at Northwell Health and medical director of North Shore University Hospital.

“I think it’s a little hard to predict what people’s behaviors around the vaccines will be,” he said.

But, “as time goes on, there is a waning of immunity, either from prior infection or from prior vaccination,” Hirschwerk said.

Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said he is not necessarily concerned about how many people overall receive the updated booster, but which population is receiving it.

“The success would be, are you getting high-risk people boosted?” he said. “Not how many millions of people get boosted. It’s who are those millions of people, and are the boosters going to have an impact on the number of deaths that we have from COVID?”

For example, Adalja said if the majority of people getting the booster were people over the age of 65 and those with chronic health conditions and other risk factors, it would be a valuable accomplishment — as opposed to the majority being healthy people in their 30s.
Adalja said people may be looking at boosters differently because there are other ways to help someone who contracts COVID, such as using antiviral drugs and monoclonal antibody treatments.

“The demand isn’t going to be the same as during earlier eras when we didn’t have so many tools and we didn’t have so much immunity,” he said.

Pharmacies have vaccines

Access to the shots doesn’t seem to be an issue on Long Island. A check of large chain pharmacies in Nassau and Suffolk counties, including Rite Aid, CVS and Walgreens, showed numerous appointments available via an online scheduler for the next several days.

Nachman said people may soon change their mind.

“I think the real issue will come, later in the fall, in the winter,” she said. “Perceptions may change when we have multiple viruses circulating at the same time and kids are missing a lot of school and parents are missing a lot of work.”

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