COVID boosters readily available in CT — why aren't more people getting them?

Photo of Alex Putterman
People enter a COVID-19 and monkeypox vaccine clinic at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

People enter a COVID-19 and monkeypox vaccine clinic at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Chris Sweda/TNS

Nearly a month after federal regulators authorized new omicron specific COVID-19 boosters, only 5.6 percent of eligible Connecticut residents have received one, state numbers show.

As of Thursday, 153,536 people in Connecticut had received a booster, out of more than 2.7 million who are eligible. The new shots, designed specifically to target the COVID-19 variants currently in circulation, are available for anyone 12 and older who completed an initial vaccination series.

Kathy Kudish, immunization program manager for the Connecticut Department of Public Health, said the state has experienced a "slower rollout than we would have liked to see," due in part to unexpectedly low availability of Moderna shots.

"There have been little bumps," Kudish said. "We thought we were getting doses out more quickly and in higher numbers than it actually turned out to be."

Earlier this month, some Connecticut residents reported having booster appointments at CVS and other pharmacies canceled amid a lack of available shots. Kudish said the problem has been mostly resolved, with the state now receiving a steadier supply of both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccine.

A CVS spokesperson said this week that the chain has "started to receive additional Moderna bivalent COVID-19 booster doses from the government and expect[s] to receive additional inventory over the coming days and weeks." Currently, the spokesperson noted, CVS has ample appointments available online at stores across Connecticut.

Vaccine appointments are also available at Walgreens and other pharmacies, as well as at physicians offices and through a small number of public sites such as those run by Hartford HealthCare and those organized by the state.

Kudish said the supply issues are largely resolved, leaving Connecticut with a steadier stream of vaccine doses. But she also acknowledges a deeper problem in the ongoing rollout: diminished enthusiasm for vaccines, not only among committed anti-vaxxers but also among people who simply don't view COVID with the urgency they once did.

"I think it's risk perception," Kudish said. "This idea that we're living with it now. There's a sort of stagnation that can occur with that."

After an initial rush of vaccine enthusiasm in early 2021, uptake was slower for the first round of boosters last fall and has not appeared to increase this time around.

Neil Bennett, a professor at Baruch College who studied the drivers of vaccine hesitancy in a recent paper, said some reluctance to boosters comes from "vaccine fatigue." Bennett's research has found that whether people get boosted or not often comes down to whether they value not only their own personal protection but also "the common good."

"Those who do vaccinate do so not only for their own health but for the health of others," said Bennett, who also works at the CUNY Institute for Demographic Research. "Fully 75 percent of those who do not vaccinate, they don't believe in the importance of the common good."

The challenge, as Bennett sees it, to both convince people that vaccination is in their own self-interest while also encouraging them to think about society more broadly.

Eric Arlia, director of pharmacy at Hartford HealthCare, said he thinks it's too early to draw conclusions about interest, or lack thereof, in the new boosters. Demand at Hartford HealthCare has been "slow and steady," he said, with about 2,000 patients receiving shots so far.

"It's still nice out, and people are adjusting the new fall and school routine and probably think they have a little time," Arlia said. "I wish [the federal government] hadn't launched [the new boosters] the Friday before Labor Day. I don't think that helped either."

Chris Boyle, a spokesperson for the state Department of Public Health, said the agency plans to increase its messaging around booster shots, including through a new commercial that will begin airing in the coming weeks.

Experts say the boosters significantly reduce the risk of hospitalization or death from COVID-19, particularly in older people and those with underlying conditions. The shots, they say, are especially important ahead of a potential wave that could rival what the region experienced last fall and winter.

Already, Connecticut continues to see relatively high levels of COVID-19 transmission. As of Thursday, the state had recorded 3,557 cases on 38,484 tests over the past week, for a positivity rate of 9.2 percent, with 383 patients currently hospitalized. 

The state on Thursday reported 22 additional COVID-associated deaths, bringing its total during the pandemic to 11,365.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Fairfield, New Haven, Hartford, Tolland, Middlesex, Windham and Litchfield Counties all have “medium” levels of COVID-19, while New London County has a “low” level.

The CDC’s more aggressive "community transmission" map lists all eight Connecticut counties as having “high” amounts of spread.