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More people are getting boosters than are getting a 1st COVID vaccine shot

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The number of people getting boosters in the U.S. is far outpacing the number getting their first shots. That is a big success for the White House's aggressive booster campaign, but it comes as the administration's top priority - vaccinating the unvaccinated - continues to struggle. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us. Hey there, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey there, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So how many people are getting boosters? How high is demand?

STEIN: So nearly 20 million people have already received a booster in the short time they've been widely available. And according to the CDC's latest data, more than 724,000 are flooding to get boosters every day now on average, often way more. That's almost triple the number trickling in for their first shots. Here's Jeff Zients, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, at a recent briefing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFF ZIENTS: Just over the past two days, about 2 million Americans rolling up their sleeves and got the enhanced protection of a booster shot.

STEIN: Now Mary Louise, this isn't a big surprise. You know, many of the tens of millions who rushed to get their first jabs are just as eager for their third, and federal officials have opened up eligibility to two out of every three of them.

KELLY: So not a big surprise, but good news - right? - that so many people are rushing out to get their booster.

STEIN: Yeah, yeah. Well, you know, if you're worried that the protection from the vaccines is weakening in the face of the delta variant, then yes, it's very good news. The more vaccinated people get boosters, the fewer who may catch the virus, spread it to others, end up in the hospital with long COVID or die. I talked about this with Dr. Robert Wachter at the University of California, San Francisco.

ROBERT WACHTER: I'm glad people are getting boosters. I think the folks that are eligible for boosters should get them. The data are clear that your immunity wanes, and that's not good for you and also not good for the community if more people become vulnerable.

STEIN: And you know, federal officials are already hinting that they're going to loosen up eligibility for boosters even more beyond just the elderly and those at risk because of their health or jobs or where they live.

KELLY: All right. Well, we will watch for that. But meanwhile, how should we fit this alongside the news that there's just not that many people who are still lining up to get their first shot?

STEIN: Yeah, you know, that is still the big concern - the unvaccinated. They are, by far, the main reason why nearly 75,000 people are still catching the virus every day. Thousands are still ending up in the hospital, and more than 1,100 are still dying every day. Here's what Dr. Paul Offit at the University of Pennsylvania said when I told him that boosters are lapping first shots now.

PAUL OFFIT: Oh, I think it's terrible. If you look at the people who come into the intensive care unit at the hospital at the University of Pennsylvania, or even who come into our hospital - the Children's Hospital - who are over 12, they're not in the intensive care unit because they didn't get their third dose. They're in the intensive care unit because they haven't gotten any doses. We need to vaccinate the unvaccinated. That's the problem - not boost the vaccinated.

STEIN: You know, Offit calls the rush booster mania - you know, an unfounded panic triggered by the administration's promise of boosters for all that kind of fed dangerous doubts about the vaccines. You know, I talked about this with Jennifer Nuzzo at Johns Hopkins. She worries that just made it harder to convince the unvaccinated to finally roll up their sleeves.

JENNIFER NUZZO: It made them think that perhaps they should just wait because perhaps a better vaccine would become available one day, that somehow we are still tinkering with the recipe.

STEIN: You know, she thinks the government must work harder to get through to the skeptics hearing this kind of misinformation. You know, many highly effective vaccines require boosters and make it easier for people to get their shots. Others would like more vaccine mandates, like requiring people to get vaccinated if they want to get on a plane for a holiday visit inside the U.S.

KELLY: And just real quick, Rob, what kind of boosters are people getting?

STEIN: You know, everyone who got the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines originally are sticking with the same brand, according to the CDC's latest data. But only about 19% of those who got the J&J went with that vaccine as a booster.

KELLY: OK.

STEIN: Yep.

KELLY: All right. So some people there switching. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thank you, Rob.

STEIN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.