Only a year ago, people were waiting in lines down the block to get a COVID-19 vaccine, obsessively refreshing web pages to find a time to schedule a shot and posting pics of their Band-aided deltoids once they got one.
But as the US nears having 4 out of 5 people at least partially vaccinated against COVID-19, vaccination rates have plateaued, with little change in the percentage of people who have gotten their primary shots over the past two months.
Growth in the country’s partial vaccination rate has slowed down since December, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the nonpartisan information center USAFacts. The share of people in the US who had received at least one dose grew by only half a percentage point between Feb. 28 and March 28, and by only seven-tenths of a point from March 28 to April 28. The full vaccination rate grew by similarly small amounts.
In contrast, the partial vaccination rate shot up by nearly 15 points in April of last year, the same month everyone 16 and older became eligible for a shot. There were more small bumps of around 3 to 4 points in August and December, data from the CDC and USAFacts shows.
While the vast majority of the population is vaccinated, those who remain unvaccinated may be unlikely to change their views now. Moreover, a majority of the population hasn’t yet gotten a booster shot, which is recommended for most vaccine-eligible age groups.
Overall, 78% of the population had received at least one vaccine dose, 66% of people were fully vaccinated, and 46% of those fully vaccinated had gotten a booster or additional dose as of May 2, according to the CDC.
Since the COVID wave fueled by the omicron variant began to fade, however, the urgency to get vaccinated seems to have faded from people’s minds as well. Pandemic restrictions are loosening, with mask mandates lifted for many schools, indoor spaces and public transportation like airplanes. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted in March, 41% of adults said they’d essentially returned to the normal activities they did before the pandemic or that they’d never change their activities to begin with, while an additional 42% said they ‘d returned to at least some pre-pandemic activities.
“There’s a general tendency to feel like we’re out of the pandemic,” says Dr. Italo Brown, an emergency room physician at Stanford Hospital in California.
Vaccines have helped curb the pandemic’s incision, and Brown notes that COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths have been trending down for weeks. However, case rates have recently started to rise again, and the Northeast in particular has seen high COVID-19 community levels of late, as judged by a CDC tool incorporating cases, hospitalizations and inpatient beds used by COVID patients.
In Brown’s view, the pandemic isn’t over – the country is merely in an intermission before another act.
“The focus is now pivoting towards those residual symptoms like long COVID,” Brown says. There is still insufficient knowledge of how to treat long COVID and what causes some people to develop debilitating symptoms like body aches, fatigue and brain fog even months after an initial coronavirus infection.
Meanwhile, out of more than 3,100 counties across the 50 states and the District of Columbia, only 86 saw their share of people with a full course of COVID vaccine grow by more than 1 percentage point from March 29 to April 28. Yet there were some communities that did succeed in notably bumping up their vaccination rates, including Brooks County in Texas (up 9.3 points to 71.8% with a full course), San Diego County in California (up 5.9 points to 76%) and Oglala Lakota County in South Dakota (up 3.7 points to 79.4%).
Booster shot campaigns fared slightly better overall, as 660 counties were able to up their booster rates by more than a percentage point. The state of New Hampshire, in particular, has seen a boost in booster shots, as nine out of the Granite State’s 10 counties saw their boosted rates go up more than 6 percentage points.
Dr. Peter Hotez, a professor and vaccine expert at the Baylor College of Medicine, says there has to be a more urgent focus on booster shots, as the protection afforded by vaccines fades over time.
“We’ve not really articulated why it’s absolutely essential to get a booster,” Hotez says, noting that new coronavirus variants are likely to emerge in the coming months.
Moreover, he points out, even just staying at the current level of initial vaccination isn’t good enough. As more time passes without people getting boosted and their ability to fight off a COVID infection wanes, the vaccination rate is effectively dropping.
“This level is no longer adequate because of wanting immunity,” Hotez says. “So we have to stop even being complacent.”