‘On track’: Three percent of Americans have gotten the new Covid shot, but the CDC director remains confident

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The Biden administration’s campaign to convince Americans to get an annual Covid shot is off to a very slow start.

Even so, the nation’s top disease-fighting official says the U.S. remains “on track” to hit last year’s uptake levels, which crested at just 17 percent of the U.S. population.

So far, 12 million people, or about 3.6 percent of the population, have gotten the shot in the five weeks since it hit pharmacy shelves — though reporting lags mean it’s likely a bit higher, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Mandy Cohen said.

More people, by far — 128 million — have gotten their annual flu vaccine, Cohen said, attributing the difference to long-held routines.

Cohen is in the middle of a national tour promoting vaccination targeting elderly people at most risk from Covid, as well as underserved communities.

She’s also meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including House Republicans who have criticized the agency, as part of her efforts to rebuild trust in the CDC.

She spoke about her pitch in an interview with POLITICO on Tuesday.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The vaccine numbers seem really low — how do you explain them?

What I would say about that number is, just like the process, it’s different [now that insurers are paying for the vaccine rather than the federal government.]

We don’t have the same level of visibility. When you don’t purchase and distribute, you also aren’t getting the same real-time information about who’s vaccinated. The number is really just a number that our pharmacy partners share back with us voluntarily.

Is distribution a problem?

This is the first time the private sector is doing this work. I think they’ve learned some lessons about distribution and demand.

After the first couple of weeks, things have really resolved so there are plenty of appointments, plenty of supply.

Is 12 million what you were expecting at this point?

I think we’re on track. Would I love to see more? Of course, that’s my job as CDC director is to want more.

What’s the goal? 

Look, I want as many people vaccinated as possible. I certainly want to make sure that we’re getting to our over 65 population.

The uptake of last year’s booster was 17 percent. Are you on track to hit that number?

Towards that number. I’d like to see it higher. I think we all would, but I think that’s a fair benchmark.

How does that compare with the flu in terms of uptake?

The flu shots have been around for a lot longer and people have sort of worked it into their routine and so the flu shot uptake is higher than what we were seeing at least with the past Covid boosters.

The Covid shot is a new formulation, so we’ll see if that matters to folks. It’s paired at the same time with the flu shot, so we’ll see if that changes how people are thinking about it and the uptake.

I think it does take time to build these sorts of habits and that behavioral change.

Most people got the initial Covid shots. Why don’t most people want this one?

I think there’s a lot of folks that say ‘I got the original ones. Aren’t we done here?’ Or ‘I’ve had Covid, aren’t I protected?’

I’m trying to help them understand two important facts: One is that the virus has changed. And this updated vaccine is mapped to those changes in the virus. And then the other fact is we’re seeing in the data that your protection from either a previous vaccine or from having Covid before decreases over time.

People were told they were fully vaccinated with the initial shots. Was that a mistake?

You haven’t heard us use that term in a while. I find it confusing.

At the time, we used ‘fully vaccinated’ to help folks understand they needed to complete the primary series. I think that was right. But what does fully vaccinated mean for us right now? It’s getting this updated Covid vaccine.

What are you doing on tour and what are you hearing?

The visits have been to locations where we know that there are higher risk folks who need to get vaccinated. Yesterday I was out in the Philly area and I went to a nursing home. Obviously we want to get our older Americans vaccinated.

Last week I was in Miami and we went to a CVS ymas, which is a store focused on the Latino community, also another important group to make sure we’re getting vaccinated.

The reception has been very good.

We’re trying to get the word out and meet with the folks who are doing the hard work of vaccinating. We recognize their time and effort and that they have to keep at it.

In your meetings on the Hill, have you made any inroads with Republicans?

I think the first part of building trust is showing up and listening and so that’s what I’ve been doing.

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