Jaterius Myers, 12, holds hands with Miss USA Asya Branch to calm his nerves as Shawanda McQuarter, LPN with Jackson-HInds Comprehensive Health Center, administers the Pfizer vaccine. The free COVID19 vaccination event was held at New Horizon Church International in partnership with the Mississippi State Department of Health, Wednesday, August 4, 2021 in Jackson. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were available to those 12 years of age and older. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

The bivalent COVID-19 booster – which provides protection against both the original strain of the virus as well as the Omicron variant – now accounts for most of the vaccine doses administered around the state. But only about 45,000 Mississippians have gotten it since it became available in September

People ages 12 and older are eligible for the new booster shot, as long as it has been at least two months since the last dose. All COVID-19 vaccines are free. 

Mississippi’s low bivalent booster uptake is in line with the national trend: Only about 4% of people eligible in the U.S. have received the new boosters. 

The state is currently seeing low numbers of cases and hospital and ICU admissions, state epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers said at a meeting of the state board of health on Wednesday. But the winter is likely to bring a surge in cases as people spend more time indoors, and public health experts are worried that thousands of people will die needlessly. 

An analysis by the Commonwealth Fund found that if vaccination rates remain flat over the fall and winter, 75,000 people could die who could have been protected by a booster. 

Mississippians can make an appointment for the bivalent booster at the health department website. Vaccine appointments are also available at the federal website vaccines.gov

People can get the updated booster even if they have not gotten an earlier booster shot. That means that if you got two doses of Pfizer, Moderna or Noravax, or one dose of Johnson & Johnson, you qualify for the new booster as long as two months have passed since your last dose. You are also eligible if you got a booster dose more than two months ago.

The updated booster shot was approved by the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about six weeks ago. The state health department announced bivalent booster appointments were available at county health departments starting on Sept. 13.  

Byers explained that as COVID-19 circulates and evolves, new variants arise that may evade immunity conferred by a vaccine or prior infection. The new booster provides broader protection than the original vaccine.

The future of COVID-19 vaccines may look a lot like the flu shot, with new versions available regularly to protect against the evolved virus. 

“That’s the kind of thing we see with the flu vaccine every year,” Byers said. “One because your immunity may wane but also because it gives you protection against those current viruses circulating and causing illness.”

So far, the vast majority of bivalent boosters in Mississippi have gone to people over age 50, according to data Byers presented at the meeting. 

The rate of booster uptake has increased week over week since early September but appears to be dropping off as of mid-October. 

Only 52% of Mississippians are fully vaccinated, compared to 67% of Americans, according to the state vaccination report released Oct. 1.

But when it comes to booster uptake, the country as a whole looks like Mississippi: In both the U.S. and in Mississippi, only 48% of people have gotten at least one booster shot. The U.S. lags behind countries like the United Kingdom, where more than 70% of adults have gotten a booster.  

A poll by KFF, a health care policy nonprofit, found that only half of American adults said they have heard about the updated shots. 

Nearly 1 million Mississippians have been infected with COVID-19. The virus has killed at least 13,000 people in the state. 

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Isabelle, an Atlanta native, covers health as part of Mississippi Today’s community health team. Prior to joining Mississippi Today, she was a reporter for the Biloxi Sun Herald and a Report for America corps member.