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When COVID-19 vaccines first came out, people lined up outside of clinics, eager and anxious to get any sort of protection against the most severe outcomes of infection.
But more than two years later, the lines are gone, and turnout at clinics providing shots is sparse. On a recent Friday morning in the basement at United Methodist Church in Haddon Heights, New Jersey, the number of vaccinators and medical volunteers outnumbered those who came in for shots.
As the pandemic winds down and viral transmission stabilizes, local and federal health agencies are preparing to move away from emergency protocols and toward treating COVID-19 as an endemic disease that can be mitigated with continued vaccination.
But uptake for the newest booster doses — designed to better match circulating variants — remains low in the Delaware Valley.
The new vaccines have been out since September of last year — but more than five months later, only about 16 percent of New Jerseyans have received a bivalent dose. The coverage rates in Pennsylvania and Delaware — 18% and 20% respectively — are not much better.
Camden County Health Director Caryelle Lasher said going forward, that needs to change.
“In the beginning, we saw a really great uptake of vaccines in the community,” Lasher said. “We have huge gaps now, people who are really left with little or no protection because they have not stayed up [to date] on their vaccines.”
Experts say these updated vaccines are one of the best tools available in decreasing the severity of any future outbreaks.
“Some people have gotten almost half a dozen shots at this point and just are saying, ‘I’ll wait, I’ll wait,’” Lasher said. “But really, this is the best time to get it.”
Camden County recently launched a new series of pop-up COVID-19 vaccine clinics. Health officials hope they’ll reignite some urgency around vaccines and encourage more people to get up-to-date on their immunizations.
For Jenna Kim, 21, the pop-up clinic in Haddon Heights was an easy drive from where she lives in Moorestown. She’s a pharmacy student, and already had three COVID-19 vaccinations under her belt.
Kim got the bivalent booster dose Tuesday.
“I think something that society is kind of realizing is that, COVID is over, but it’s really not,” she said. “[The virus] is still mutating and making more strains. So it’s better to get the bivalent shot, because it covers a lot more strains than before.”
Lasher said there are several reasons why uptake might be slow.
People who’ve become recently ill with COVID-19 may delay their booster shot. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance states that people may consider delaying a booster three months after symptoms first appeared or a positive test result.
Pandemic fatigue has also played a role, Lasher said, and there are fewer large-scale vaccination sites in communities.
Camden County’s series of clinics throughout South Jersey are free, and will run through late winter or early spring.
Eventually, Lasher said the goal is to incorporate COVID-19 vaccines into other annual immunization programs, like for influenza, and make them a part of standard health care.
“It’s really important that we don’t look at this as a one and done,” she said. “It’s going to be a part of just protecting our health and taking care of ourselves. We get our blood pressure checked, we get our sugars checked, we get our COVID vaccines. And it’s just a piece that we’re doing to take care of ourselves.”
Health experts say vaccines should remain widely available for most people after the end of the federal public health emergency on May 11. However, access may be compromised for uninsured people and undocumented residents who are ineligible for health insurance.