By Luke Andrews Health Reporter For Dailymail.Com
17:00 11 Sep 2023, updated 18:12 11 Sep 2023
America may have left itself open to a future deadly Covid wave because so few seniors have been boosted, some experts fear.
Latest official data shows nearly six in 10 Americans over 65 years old did not get last year’s bivalent booster shot — and experts think even fewer will come forward when the newly formulated Covid vaccines are rolled out this month.
The figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveal there are also large disparities across different parts of the country, with as few as a quarter of seniors boosted in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.
At the county level, where smaller population sizes mean the figures are more volatile, uptake is as low as 2 percent — and perhaps even lower in some areas. Overall, only about 43 percent of eligible people over 65 years old nationwide have come forward to get the bivalent booster, which was rolled out last winter, according to the CDC’s latest data which goes up to May 2023.
More seniors are likely to have come forward since that date, but enthusiasm for the vaccines has been waning throughout the pandemic. Dr William Schaffner, an infectious diseases expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee, warned the data suggested the US could be in for a ‘notable’ rise in Covid hospitalizations and deaths this winter — even though most of the country has antibodies against the virus.
While Covid has become milder due to more people having immunity through infection or vaccination, older people — who have weaker immune systems — still remain at the highest risk for severe disease and death if they catch the virus.
The CDC’s data was last updated in May 2023 for all 3,144 counties in the US. Hawaii was excluded because there was not enough data available. The dataset also included figures from the 100 subdivisions of the territories of the United States — including Puerto Rico and Guam.
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Dr Schaffner told DailyMail.com, after viewing the data: ‘We could have a notable Covid-influenza-RSV season this year because we will be dealing with a population that is under-vaccinated.
‘That means more cases, more intensive care visits and more deaths.’
He added, however: ‘We don’t anticipate an increase in Covid that is of the magnitude of past winters or, goodness knows, the winter before.
‘But we will have an increase and that increase is largely preventable, that is the main point.’
On why hospitalizations will rise this winter, he said: ‘Many people have been vaccinated many months ago and now their protection is waning, but they have a false sense of security.
‘They have been out and about with some friends who have gotten Covid but haven’t been to the hospital.
‘But as the months go on and their protection continues to wane… then they could be hit with an infection that puts them in an intensive care unit within 48 hours.’
Data showed more than 60 counties across 13 states saw fewer than one in 10 seniors get the bivalent booster.
Some of the counties in the US with low vaccination rates, however, did also have a small population of seniors, which can skew figures.
The county with the fewest over-65s boosted across the whole US was Norton County, Virginia, according to CDC data — where just 0.1 percent of older adults came forward for the shot.
When contacted by DailyMail.com, however, the state’s department of health claimed there were discrepancies in the national data and that the figures were wrong.
A spokesperson said that, for example, 8.6 percent of seniors in Norton County had actually received the bivalent vaccine.
Excluding Virginia, King County in Texas had the lowest booster uptake among over-65s with just two percent of residents having come forward to get the shot.
At the other end of the scale was a county in Maine, where more than 86 percent of residents over 65 got the Covid booster last year.
Wisconsin, Vermont, Iowa, Massachusetts, Washington and Colorado — mostly Democrat-led states — all also had counties in the top 10 for highest vaccine uptake among the age group.
When contacted by DailyMail.com, a spokesman for the CDC said its figures for counties from May were the most up to date.
Dr Schaffner added: ‘There have been a number of studies that have shown that your political affiliation is reflected, in part, in how assiduously the population embraces certainly the Covid vaccine and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the same for the influenza vaccine also.’
He added: ‘There is so much information out there about Covid and its nastiness that I find myself regularly puzzled by the fact people aren’t embracing this vaccine.
‘All these vaccines shift the balance in your favor. None is perfect, none prevents disease, but a completely mild infection is very different to having to go to hospital.’
More than 230million Americans — including nearly 95 percent of over-65s — came forward to get the first two shots of the original Covid vaccine.
But for the bivalent booster roll out last year this figure fell to 56million — with just 23million over-65s — coming forward for the shot.
Two shots of the original Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were needed because the first primed the immune system while the second maximized the immune response.
Boosters are now being rolled out, like with the flu vaccine, to top-up immunity levels which may have waned.
Studies show immunity wanes more rapidly in older people leaving them at higher risk of severe disease and death from the virus.
This year, health officials are set to offer Americans an updated booster vaccine targeting the XBB variant, which was dominant in the US this summer.
Early tests show that it is also effective in protecting against BA.2.86, which has triggered fears of a fresh Covid wave.
There are also promising signs it will work against the EG.5 Covid variant, which is currently dominant in the US.
The White House has suggested this vaccine will be offered to everyone over five years old, although this is yet to be confirmed.
Concerns over the Pirola variant also saw some schools bring back face masks — even as studies showed the variant was not more transmissible than other currently circulating strains.
Data shows Covid hospitalizations across the US are on the incline, with about 17,418 people admitted during the week ending August 26 — up 16 percent compared to the previous seven-day period.
But this is well below the levels reported earlier this year when there were 44,000 admissions a week in January.
Deaths are also rising, with 672 fatalities recorded over the week to August 12, the latest available — up six percent from 631 in the previous week. But this is also well below levels recorded earlier this year.
After being shown the maps, Dr Thomas Moore, an infectious disease expert at the University of Kansas, told DailyMail.com they were ‘not encouraging’.
‘The map is certainly not very encouraging,’ he said.
Asked about the impact on this year’s virus season, he said: ‘I think it is hard to predict how this respiratory virus season will unfold.
‘We’ve had significant transmission throughout the summer and the cases are increasing locally, but our hospital admission rates have not significantly increased.
‘If our experience can be generalized, I think most communities will experience an increase in outpatient office and ER visits, and I expect some increase in hospitalizations.
‘But, in the absence of the emergence of a Paxlovid-resistant or vaccine-resistant strain, I expect there to be nothing like the surges we experienced with any of the previous strains, including Delta and Omicron.’