The Lamen

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Jan 9, 2024 | Coronavirus

People aren’t as worried about getting COVID anymore

Uptake of the updated COVID shots has been lagging, and surveys report that several American adults don’t plan on getting vaccinated. Many experts consider this to be the recipe for crisis.

Illustration: Generated with Bing AI

The Covid-19 pandemic was an eye-opener. People were pushed into isolation and the fear of contagion had immediate repercussions: disoriented routines and heightened anxiety changed how people functioned.

Hospitals reevaluated patient care, employers had a new outlook on employee health, and the focus shifted toward mental health. The rapid mobilization of Covid-19 vaccines was hailed as a miracle — nearly all adults received at least one dose of the initial vaccines.

However, public interest in subsequent vaccination has dropped steadily, with only 29 percent of Americans having received the new Covid-19 vaccine that was released this fall, according to a recent Gallup survey.

About half of the adults who previously got a Covid-19 vaccine reportedly no longer plan to get an updated shot, and just 23 percent of Americans are worried about getting infected. This poses the question: Does no one want to get vaccinated?

Context

The Covid-19 variant known as JN.1 quickly became the most dominant in the U.S. around the holidays, accounting for nearly 30 percent of all infections — indicating that Covid isn’t entirely gone.

  • In early 2023, the World Health Organization declared that Covid was no longer a global public health emergency. However, it is still “an established ongoing health issue.”
  • Over a thousand people are still dying from Covid-19 every day, and experts still struggle to understand the implications of post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection (PASC) or long COVID.
A graphical visualization of deaths due to COVID-19 worldwide.

Daily confirmed COVID-19 deaths worldwide since July 2023. Visuals: Our World in Data

However, this approach may not be reliable in the long term. If the brain finds these stretch signals to be unreliable, it “might start to use other signals to decide how much we eat,” neuroscientist Carlos Campos told MIT Technology Review.

Between the lines

Adults attributed this to safety concerns about the vaccine, the effectiveness of the vaccine, or the belief that they would not suffer any serious health consequences.

  • With the near non-existent masking guidelines and easing of other precautionary recommendations, people are no longer in fear of the unknown.
  • The disinterest in getting updated Covid shots is considered a combination of insufficient communication and political hostility towards the vaccines.
  • Conspiracy theories and misinformation have also managed to generate skepticism over the safety of updated shots — with several parents still reluctant to have their children inoculated.

Meanwhile, officials worry about the impact of another “tripledemic,” where a rise in seasonal influenza and RSV may coincide with an uptick in Covid-19 cases during the winter.

  • The survey reports that Covid shot uptake is lagging behind annual flu shot rates — indicating that people are actively embracing the idea that the crisis has passed.
  • Covid tends to be mild in children and young adults. On the other hand, young children and older adults are more at risk of influenza and R.S.V, with a triple infection being especially serious for infants.

Why it matters

Healthcare workers suggest that this makes hospital overcrowding a very real possibility with people are risk of both Covid and the flu.

  • Even a variant like JN.1 — posing a low risk to public health — could burden the healthcare systems as they grapple with a surge of winter illnesses.
  • Even if it does not result in a spike in hospitalizations, the variant does add the subsequent risk of long Covid.

On the other end, some experts argue that immunity from past infections and vaccinations are enough to protect most young individuals from severe illness.

  • Protection from a previous infection can be high for older variants, but substantially lower for newer variants like Omicron, according to a meta-study.
  • Vaccine-induced immunity, on the other hand, rapidly wanes over time. The rapidly mutation virus also makes for the case of regular, updated doses.

Viewpoints

 

“Tempered expectations”

Young, healthy adults — who generally experience a milder Covid infection — may not benefit significantly from a booster dose. “There is room for reasonable debate about how much-added value there is for a young, healthy person,” Natalie Dean, a biostatistician at Emory University, told Science.

“It is hard to make a case for vaccinating everyone”

At their core, updated Covid vaccines are meant to protect people from severe infections and prevent the overburdening of healthcare institutions.

“At this point in the pandemic, it is hard to make a case for vaccinating everyone. Let’s focus on those who are most likely to benefit,” wrote pediatrician Paul Offit, in his newsletter Beyond the Noise. “Otherwise, we run the risk of further confusing and frustrating the American Public.”

“The benefits of vaccination outweight the decision not to be vaccinated”

Knowing who’s at a “high risk” of Covid isn’t simple. Therefore, experts suggest that there are very few “actual downsides” to getting an updated dose.

“No matter what your age is, whether you’re young and healthy or old and frail, the benefits of vaccination outweigh the decision not to be vaccinated,” William Schaffner, professor of infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told Health.