As COVID-19 ramps up yet again, an alarmingly low portion of San Franciscans is heeding the call to get the latest booster even though The City's rate is much higher than the rest of California and the nation.
“The thing keeping me up at night is the low booster uptake rates. A lot of people are over COVID and think it will be mild, which is not necessarily true depending on where and who you are,” said Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease expert at UCSF. “It will help in the short term against infection in many people, and particularly, people over 65.”
Just 31% of San Francisco residents have received the most recent booster, a bivalent two-strain vaccine that research has shown better helps prevent against severe illness and hospitalization from both the original COVID-19 virus and the Omicron variants that have become dominant.
San Franciscans like Yowie Stromberg, 64, are among those who have yet to seek out the latest COVID-19 shot. She said she has received the initial vaccine series and one booster. But she wasn’t in a hurry to get another one.
“I don’t know that I want to get the new one. There’s just been so many immunizations recently,” Stromberg said while walking her dog up Jones Street in Nob Hill on Tuesday morning.
But fatigue is only one part of the problem. Compared with the vaccine rollout in 2021, far fewer resources and dollars have been dedicated to setting up mass vaccination events like the drive-through centers and Moscone Convention Center.
San Francisco significantly reduced its COVID-19 response funding in the latest budget. About $172 million was dedicated to pandemic response work in the 2021-22 fiscal year. But the most recent budget for the 2022-23 fiscal year included just $57.3 million and $25 million is currently slated for COVID-19 in 2023-24.
Public health officials wrote in a June budget document that the decrease of COVID-19 funding was “building on prior year efforts in vaccination, surveillance and public education that have positioned San Francisco to respond effectively to COVID-19.”
The City is in a much stronger position to handle a COVID surge today than a year ago, Chin-Hong echoed.
But San Francisco residents like Geoff, who lives in the Tenderloin and declined to provide his last name, said it’s been difficult this time around to find an appointment for the bivalent booster, even though he wants one.
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“The bivalent one is barely available anywhere,” said Geoff, 62, while waiting in line for breakfast at St. Anthony’s this week. He said he has received the initial COVID-19 vaccine series, two booster shots, as well as a flu shot. But he hasn’t been able to find an appointment for the latest bivalent shot.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released this month show that the bivalent boosters are more effective than the earlier vaccines at preventing infection. It shows people ages 12 and older with a bivalent booster show were 15 times less likely to die from COVID-19 compared with an unvaccinated person.
CDC research also shows immune protection may wane from earlier vaccines, too.
San Francisco has higher bivalent booster uptake compared with the rest of the state (19%) and country (13%). But health experts worry that still only a third of San Francisco residents with a booster is low, especially as cases of COVID-19, the flu and other viruses are surging across the Bay Area.
The majority of people who die from COVID-19 are over age 65. But only about half of residents age 65 and over have received the bivalent booster in San Francisco.
“That’s the group doing more poorly than the general population. You have to be boosted as an older person,” Chin-Hong said.
San Francisco Department of Public Health is hosting nearly a dozen community pop-up vaccination events at schools, toy drives and other gathering places this winter.
The White House also recently unveiled a six-week campaign to administer more boosters for older adults. The plan includes funding for local vaccination events at senior centers and transportation to and from vaccine appointments.
“With winter and holiday gatherings right around the corner, more Americans getting their updated vaccine will help avoid thousands of preventable COVID-19 deaths,” the plan reads.