Less than a year after COVID-19 vaccines were made available to the public, many Americans are now eligible to get a booster shot from Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson, increasing protection from a disease that has killed more than 738,000 people across the U.S.
Health officials say all three boosters are “highly effective” in reducing the risk of hospitalization, serious disease, and death, and some more vulnerable communities are being encouraged to get the booster shot as soon as possible.
Similar to the first round of vaccinations, booster shots are currently only available to certain demographics: The Moderna and Pfizer booster shots are available to those 65 or older, and those between the ages of 50–64 with medical conditions. However, those 18 years and older can receive a booster if they have an underlying medical condition, live in long-term care facilities, or work in high-transmission settings like hospitals, schools, homeless shelters, and correctional facilities. For the Johnson & Johnson booster, anyone over the age of 18 is eligible, but it might not be recommended if there is a history or possibility of blood clots. All boosters should be given at least six months after their COVID-19 vaccine was administered. Eligibility for the booster shots could expand as soon as more testing and data is gathered.
Inequities and lack of access for BIPOC
For communities with an underlying distrust of the healthcare system due to disparate treatment and systemic inequities, getting a booster shot is especially important. Black, Native, and Latinx people are significantly more likely to contract and die from COVID-19. Despite being disproportionately affected by the virus, disinformation, lack of access to the vaccine, and vaccine hesitancy were a few of the factors responsible for the delay in vaccination rates across people of color. Health organizations, ad companies, local communities, and other officials worked together to help combat these hurdles and assure hesitant communities that the vaccine is safe and necessary. Vaccination rates for Black and brown people have been climbing in recent months, but now that boosters are available, communities and organizations aren’t letting up on fighting for access.
One of the main hurdles during the vaccine rollout was the lack of access in certain communities. Eligibility criteria for the vaccines was initially more rigid than for the booster shots, and problems with accessibility for BIPOC made it possible for some more privileged groups to jump the line and gain access to the vaccine. Many essential workers beyond educators and physicians had to wait while wealthier white citizens received a shot first—even when they weren’t eligible.
Because of these issues, health physicians are encouraging people to wait to get a booster shot if they are not a part of a vulnerable group. And like with the vaccines, in some places such as Colorado, the number of white booster shot recipients is outpacing the number of Black and brown people.
Currently, 57% of the American population is fully vaccinated. Health officials say access to booster shots should not be as difficult as getting the vaccine, and the number of those getting boosters is outpacing those getting their first dose.
“The structural inequities, they’re not gone away completely, but they’ve dramatically been improved,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “We now have vans going into communities giving shots [and] we have beefed up the systems to move people and offer transportation. The community health centers that are in those communities are now giving vaccines, so they’ve increased the number of vaccinators–people giving shots. They’ve increased the number of places for people to get shots, and they’ve made the systems that give shots mobile so they can go into communities or go into those communities and bring people to where they get vaccinated.”
Getting the message out
Before eligible people can get their booster shots, they first have to know it’s their turn. In order to get the message out, some health officials are taking what they’ve learned from the vaccine distribution to ensure equitable access to everyone.
Mobile efforts continue to work in local communities with the help of churches after studies showed that medical professionals partnering with Black churches “in delivering COVID-19 education and vaccination could be an effective way of increasing vaccine uptake in Black communities.”
Pop-up clinics and mobile vaccine efforts have also curbed the other major hurdle that older, working class people still face: online appointment set-ups. While making a local online portal seemed more efficient for some cities trying to relay vaccine information to residents, some of the websites dealt with bugs, complexities, and crashing—especially when vaccines were first available. Only having online portals made vaccine appointments inaccessible for many older Americans, a worry some have about the boosters.
Frank Fuentes, chairman of the U.S. Hispanic Contractors Association, said technology was one of the biggest hurdles the Latinx workforce faced in Texas—not a language barrier or hesitancy—when trying to get vaccinated. The problem was that the most vulnerable older, working class people—construction workers, field workers, and hospitality workers—were not really on social media and could not navigate such technological systems nor take the time to make an appointment.
“It was shameful to me, because it was set up as a competition,” Fuentes said. “They only had so many vaccines. Whomever was the one that was smart enough, lucky enough to get the appointment through that stupid portal was the one who was going to get the vaccine.”
Technology might not be for everyone, but it can still be utilized in providing the right information to those online. Virtual conversations, campaigns, and professional health accounts continue to promote vaccinations, while others have gifs and reshareable content regarding boosters for social media and followers.
Because many other communities faced this issue, non-health organizations such as the U.S. Hispanic Contractors Association worked with local governments and health organizations to provide vaccines to not only their own organizations, but other workers as well, such as those in the food industry. They’re still focused on these efforts as boosters become available.
“Community-based organizations are very important because, a: They’re trusted messengers, and b: They know the community,” Benjamin said. “And I think they quite frequently provide services at times and in places that traditional providers don’t.”
And while vaccine hesitancy is still a problem, Benjamin believes it isn’t much of a concern anymore for communities of color, as health officials and organizations acknowledged the distrust and worked to educate and connect with communities, which brought the vaccination rate up.
“It’s less of an issue. It’s still there, but within the booster community, those folks got the shots, so they’re less likely to not want to get the booster,” Benjamin said.
Fortunately, there is a broader range of places to receive the booster shot, as doctor’s offices, clinics, and local pharmacy retailers are now more experienced and equipped to give them out.
Benjamin says to schedule a booster, people should look to how they received their first shots.
“If they got it with the health department, check with the health department. If they got it through one of the retail clinics [Walgreens, CVS], then go get it from there,” Benjamin said. “In most cases, you just have to do what you did before: Make an appointment and go in.”