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Florida has one of the worst updated COVID-19 booster rates in the country

Health worker extracts coronavirus vaccine from a vial with a syringe in the foreground. Female patient in the background with her sleeve pulled up to expose her arm.
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Uptake has been low nationally for the updated COVID-19 booster, but it's particularly bad in Florida.

Health experts are encouraging people to get the booster to help prevent another holiday surge, but many people have not answered the call.

Florida has the fourth lowest rate in the country for adults getting the updated COVID-19 booster shot, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rates for kids and teens are well below the national average as well. Some health experts say that’s concerning, especially as the holidays approach.

As of Nov. 16, just over 20% of Florida seniors had received a bivalent booster shot from Pfizer or Moderna, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration first authorized at the end of August.

Closer to 30% of the overall U.S. population has received one so far, and only Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama have lower rates than Florida. Georgia just edges out the state but is essentially level with it.

The term “bivalent” refers to the fact that these vaccines target both the original coronavirus variant and the omicron variant, which caused a surge in hospitalizations and deaths last winter and continues to circulate in different strains.

Seniors, who are most prone to severe COVID-19, are most likely to benefit from the updated protection, which is why the low rates in Florida trouble Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist with the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health.

“We haven't convinced enough people that going out and getting that booster shot is worth their while to not only protect themselves but the people with whom they'll be interacting with for the holiday season,” he said.

The state is also in the bottom five for working-age adults, with about 4.5% having gotten the updated shot, compared to 9% nationally.

Salemi suspects part of the low uptake has to do with some state officials expressing skepticism about the vaccines. Other people may be waiting because they had a recent infection or previous booster.

Salemi says if it's been more than two months, people should get the new shot, and that applies to children as well.

Only 1.5% of ages 12 to 17 have received the booster in Florida, while just 0.5% of ages 5 to 11 have. COVID vaccination rates are low in general for younger kids in the state.

Infectious disease physician Dr. Linette Sande with Nemours Children's Hospital in Orlando says now is the time for that to change.

"We really want families to enjoy the holidays,” she said. “The last thing we want is for people to get sick right before they go on that trip, and even if you're not traveling for the holidays but you have family visiting, parents, grandparents, young kids – we really don't want the spread of COVID at those events."

For parents wondering if they can start their kids off with the updated booster, Sande says everyone must complete the primary series first. She says those shots are still safe and effective at preventing severe illness.

Sande also encourages families to get vaccinated for the flu, which is also spreading in the community along with the common respiratory virus known as RSV.

There is no RSV vaccine available, so Sande says handwashing and keeping surfaces clean, along with avoiding contact with sick people will be important to prevent the spread of all of these viruses.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.
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