Health officials had hoped to avoid another large wave of COVID-19 infections this year thanks to updated vaccines, but that optimism may be starting to fade with the changing seasons.
Only about 144,000 Chicagoans have received an updated COVID-19 booster as of last Wednesday, according to the latest numbers from the city’s public health department — that’s less than 10% of the nearly 2 million people eligible for the reformulated vaccine that was designed to protect against omicron subvariants.
The low turnout comes as colder weather nears and signs are emerging that another surge may already be on the horizon. Health officials have said for weeks that a large percentage of the population getting the updated shot would likely reduce the severity of a winter surge and help to stave off the emergence of new variants. The city’s top doctor said Tuesday that “there is still time” to get more people boosted, but the clock is ticking.
“The number of boosters administered is not where I would like us to be heading into the fall and winter, when we typically see a surge in all respiratory viruses including COVID and flu,” Dr. Allison Arwady said in a press release Friday.
Everyone 12 and older who has completed an initial vaccine series is eligible for the updated booster shot, but uptake has been both “slow” and “uneven across different demographic groups,” according to the Chicago Department of Public Health. Of the shots that have been administered in the city, 60% have gone to white residents, but only about 14% of eligible white residents have been boosted. And only about 9% of eligible Asian residents have received the new shot, 5% of eligible Black residents and 4% of eligible Latino residents.
“These all need to be three to four times what we’re seeing, even for the white Chicago numbers,” Arwady said Tuesday on Facebook Live. “I’m concerned that especially in Latinx and Black communities, we’re seeing lagging vaccine uptake, which means if we get a notable surge this winter, it’s more likely to hit harder in those communities.”
Signs of a new seasonal surge are already emerging in Europe, where COVID cases have been rising in countries including the U.K., France and Italy, NPR reports. Europe tends to be an early indicator of the virus’s spread in the states.
“We have, throughout this entire pandemic, followed a trend where what we see in Europe and in the U.K. often precedes what we see trend wise in the United States, usually by about four weeks or so,” Dr. Mia Taormina, an infectious disease specialist with Duly Health and Care, told WBEZ’s Reset.
For now, Chicago and Cook County remain at a “low” COVID risk level, but Taormina said she anticipates cases will begin rising in the U.S. in coming weeks.
“I don’t know that we’re necessarily going to see astronomically high numbers, certainly not what we saw last December and January with omicron, but we will see numbers coming up,” Taormina said. “And there are going to be a number of reinfections — people that have had COVID before.”
Taormina worries the boosters are not being administered at a rate that will outpace mutations that could overcome the vaccine. Arwady echoed that on Tuesday.
“If we don’t get a lot of people to get this updated vaccine this fall, we are really set up in a not-great way for the potential for a new variant,” Arwady said. “Everytime there’s another COVID infection, that is the opportunity for a new variant to potentially emerge.”
Overall, seniors have turned out the most to get boosted, but even in that demographic, the numbers have a long way to go.
“Folks in their 70s are the most likely to have had the updated booster, which is good, but still fewer than one-in-five eligible Chicagoans in their 70s have had that updated booster,” Arwady said, adding that about 15% of Chicagoans age 80 or older have been boosted this fall. “I worry a lot about this. These should be upwards of 80%.”
Dr. Irfan Hafiz, an infectious disease expert with Northwestern Medicine, thinks the lackluster response to the booster is mostly a result of pandemic fatigue, but with the holiday season approaching, Hafiz is encouraging his patients to think of the booster as a way to protect their family members.
The challenge in getting people a COVID booster comes right as the city is also trying to convince people to get an annual flu shot.
“All signs point to this being quite a bad flu season and my worry is if we had a bad flu season on top of a bad or even a routine at this point COVID season, that really has the potential to threaten our health care system,” Arwady said. “For me to worry less about COVID and flu as a city, for you to worry less as an individual, it’s about you getting both of those vaccines this fall.”
Courtney Kueppers is a digital producer/reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @cmkueppers.