Americans rush for vaccine boosters ahead of Omicron wave

Vaccination rates in US have begun to pick up, though they lag behind some European countries

Residents of the US’s biggest cities are struggling to book vaccine appointments because of the rising wave of the Omicron coronavirus variant and a rush in demand for booster shots before Christmas.

Walgreens, one of the country’s biggest pharmacy chains by number of pharmacists, says it is observing record levels of demand, while those looking to book appointments in some localities are having to wait for up to two weeks.

The jostle for vaccine appointments, especially in big cities, has drawn comparisons with a year ago when the Trump administration initially struggled to funnel doses to those who needed them when cases were surging in the run-up to Christmas.

Experts warn that the lack of appointments in some regions will mean the heavily mutated new strain will spread more quickly in the US than it has in the UK, where daily cases are at record levels.

Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, said: "We don't have the capability to deliver vaccines across the country rapidly, and we are relying heavily on people getting appointments at pharmacies."

He added: “This is just one of several reasons we are very underprepared for the onslaught of Omicron.”

US president Joe Biden has urged Americans to get booster shots as Omicron begins to spread. Anthony Fauci, the president's chief medical adviser, said this week that booster shots of both BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna's vaccines would offer considerable protection against the new variant, which has swept through South Africa and is now doing the same in the UK and Denmark.

Vaccination rates in the US have begun to pick up, though they lag far behind some European countries. In the UK, 43 per cent of all over-12s have received a booster dose, according to the latest government figures. In the US, the figure is 30 per cent of all fully vaccinated over-18s. In Ireland, 32.9 per cent of over 18s have had a booster jab, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

Pharmacies overwhelmed

In some places in the US, the problem appears to be a lack of demand. Doses are distributed proportionally across states. Yet in Texas, 23 per cent of fully vaccinated people have received a booster, while in Vermont the figure is 43 per cent.

But in other areas such as big cities, the availability of appointments is more pressing, with pharmacies being overwhelmed by people trying to book slots.

In Washington, DC the delay for getting an appointment is 10 days with either CVS or Walgreens, pharmacy chains that have jointly administered a fifth of all US vaccinations. In New York and San Francisco, the wait is closer to two weeks.

Walgreens told the Financial Times: “We’ve seen a significant spike in demand over the past two weeks due to multiple factors including the holidays, authorisation of boosters for all and paediatric populations, and increased variant news.

“Last week, Walgreens administered a record high number of Covid-19 vaccines. Demand remains steady this week so far, averaging near record highs daily.”

CVS would not comment on recent demand, but it said: “In the last week alone we have increased available appointments across many of our CVS pharmacy locations and we continue to actively hire and train new employees to provide these life-saving vaccinations.”

The Washington, DC health department said: “In just under a month, we have had an increase of more than 23,290 booster doses administered in DC. For a very long time, our seven-day dose average was around 700 doses but on November 16 it was 1,956 and last week it was 2,423.”

Some cities have set up walk-in centres for people to receive boosters without an appointment. But they are often limited in both location and opening times, leading to long queues outside. Manhattan, for example, has just five walk-in centres in a borough of 1.6m people.

Delays

Speaking outside a walk-in centre in central Washington, DC, several residents said they had become frustrated at delays in receiving an appointment at a pharmacy.

Emily Snider, a lawyer, said it had been impossible to get a booking on the CVS website, and when she went to a walk-in centre for the first time, the queue was so long she was unable to get a jab before having to leave. She received one on her second visit.

AJ Ferguson, who works in finance, said he had secured an appointment with a pharmacy which was then cancelled, with no reason given. “I am okay, I am 34,” he said. “This would have been a lot worse if I was 70.”

Some are now urging the White House to repeat what was done early in the rollout and set up mass vaccination sites where thousands of people can be vaccinated each day.

Topol said: “Mass vaccination sites would work in areas of high demand. They can be difficult for the federal government to run, but right now we need to be pulling out all the stops to get people boosted. So far we have not done that.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021