Increasing access to COVID-19 booster shots would make a big dent in hospitalizations and unnecessary deaths, new research shows.
Tripling the pace of booster vaccination from 770,000 doses per day to 2.3 million could reduce the expected number of COVID-19 hospitalizations by more than 35% and deaths by nearly 30% through April, according to new data from the Commonwealth Fund. While hospital admissions are expected to peak at approximately 30,000 per day near the end of January, tripling booster vaccination would reduce the peak to 21,000 and significantly reduce the duration of the surge, the study found.
That would provide much-needed relief to short-staffed hospitals and their workers, the researchers wrote.
"Given the speed that omicron is spreading, we could save about 63,000 lives over the next four months and prevent nearly 600,000 hospitalizations by tripling booster vaccination," said Eric Schneider, senior vice president for policy and research at Commonwealth. "There's a sense of hopelessness of omicron, but since the booster rejuvenates immunity to COVID-19 within a few days, it could make a big impact," he said.
Only 35% of adult Americans have received booster shots, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children have limited access to booster shots: As of Thursday, only kids ages 12-17 are eligible and they must receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
The hang-up in adult booster uptake isn't supply; it's mainly due to a lack of awareness and uncertainty, Schneider said.
Significantly increasing booster vaccinations is achievable, the researchers wrote. The U.S. administered more than 2 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines daily for almost three months last year. The federal government has already added 10,000 vaccination sites and launched mobile vaccination clinics through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"There's been an effort to get the word out, but I don't know that boosters received the same level of focus and consistent messaging as the vaccine," Schneider said. "The messaging around boosters and their benefit is less clear than it could be."
Health systems are increasing their outreach and messaging around boosters. Philadelphia-based Jefferson Health, for instance, launched a mobile vaccination program that has administered more than 7,000 vaccine doses in parks, community centers and schools, said Dr. Sandra Brooks, chief medical officer at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. The not-for-profit health system has also coordinated public forums to answer questions about the vaccine.
"Our focus as of late has been providing ongoing access for boosters, primary vaccination needs and holding vaccination clinics in area schools," Brooks wrote in an email. "Jefferson continues this work in partnership with City of Philadelphia's Department of Public Health, and our many community partners, and we plan to expand education and access to booster shots."
In addition to reducing the severity of COVID-19 waves, boosters help slow the evolution of variants, health officials said. Booster doses are essential in slowing the spread of the virus and protecting people from hospitalization and death," Dr. Craig Robbins, medical director of the Oakland, California-based Kaiser Permanente Care Management Institute's Center for Clinical Information Services and Education, said in a news release.
Many hospitals are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. While providers are better prepared for the latest surge, there are fewer nurses, doctors and other staff on hand. The vast majority of patients admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, providers report.
"This is different than other waves. It is more of a staffing crisis," said Stephanie Connors, chief operating officer at Jefferson Health. More than 60% of the COVID-19 patients at the health system were admitted to the hospital with a different primary diagnosis, she said. "I'm not saying that omicron doesn't have clinical implications, but it is spreading so rapidly. Staffing for hospitals is so critical."