Jeff Watson got the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it became available. He took the first booster shot, too.
But when it comes to the updated bivalent booster, he said, he feels differently.
While the 73-year-old still gets his flu shot each year, some of the news channels he watches have raised doubts about the safety and efficacy of coronavirus vaccines, as have political leaders he voted to put in office. Just last week, Gov. Ron DeSantis launched a probe into the vaccines, shots he touted as lifesaving for seniors just one year ago.
“There’s going to be an investigation into everything involved in COVID,” said Watson, a Republican living in The Villages, the sprawling retirement community in central Florida. “And we’ll see where that leads in terms of me taking any additional shots. At this point, I’m not gonna do it.”
As the holidays approach, roughly 75% of older adults have not gotten their most recent booster shot in Florida, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows. The Sunshine State has the fifth lowest booster rate among people 65 and older nationwide.
Coronavirus vaccines remain safe and highly protective against severe illness, according to most medical experts and the CDC. They conclude it’s far riskier to avoid getting a shot than it is to take one.
Yet some older adults in Florida have expressed confusion over whether they need a booster. Others have said they don’t know how to get one, highlighting the sharp contrast between the promotion of boosters this year and more robust federal and local vaccine efforts in years past.
Others still said they’ve grown distrustful of boosters amid a politicized climate where Republican state leaders have framed evolving health recommendations as deliberate deceptions and claimed Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID vaccines are “far less safe” than any other widely-used vaccine.
When asked about the state’s low booster rate among seniors, James Williams III, spokesperson for the Florida Department of Health, said state officials aren’t concerned.
“Our concern is making sure that people have a choice, and not pumping out this propaganda that you need to be vaccinated,” he said.
The state Department of Health has not released guidance on whether people 65 and older should get the updated booster shot.
The Governor’s Office has not responded to requests for comment.
Florida seniors should talk with their doctor or local pharmacist about whether they are eligible for a booster shot, said Dr. Jill Roberts, a professor of public health at the University of South Florida.
Generally, anyone who is eligible should get boosted, she said.
The newest booster “gives you much better coverage against new strains (of COVID-19),” Roberts said. “Does it mean you’re not going to get sick? No, but it does mean no hospitalization or death — the bivalent booster is showing as much as 15 times higher antibody response than the original shots.”
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9 in 10 COVID deaths are seniors
Florida lags even as coronavirus has proved particularly deadly for older adults. That trend has become only more pronounced in recent months.
This month, seniors have accounted for 90% of COVID deaths, according to most recently available Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
This holiday season has mirrored those of previous years, with deaths and hospitalizations on the rise in recent weeks. In Florida, coronavirus hospitalizations of people 70 and older are up more than 20% from the previous weeklong period, according to most recent CDC data.
Vaccination is the best way to protect from severe illness from COVID-19, most health officials say.
‘I’d be first in line’
As the days grew shorter, the chorus of coughs at Peterborough Apartments grew louder. Diane Orea donned a mask whenever she left her room in the St. Petersburg affordable senior housing complex. But the 73-year-old said she still felt exposed.
“I certainly would be of peace of mind if I could get my fifth COVID shot,” she said. “But I’m in a wheelchair. I don’t have a car.”
Health care staff had come to the apartment to help residents get their updated booster shots in October. But the timing didn’t work for Orea — she would’ve had to push back an upcoming shoulder surgery to get the booster.
Now recovered from the procedure, she’s eligible for a booster. But getting to a health center or pharmacy isn’t easy, Orea said.
“I just kind of depend on them coming here,” she said. “And if they would come back with the COVID shot, I’d be first in line.”
A spokesperson for Peterborough Apartments said that the building will be setting up another COVID booster event after the holidays.
‘I will take my chances’
But in Tampa, Claudia LeFevre-Lowry said she’s seen her health decline in the past two years, and worries it’s because she received initial doses of the COVID vaccine.
The CDC says that serious side effects from any vaccine — including the coronavirus vaccines — are extremely rare.
LeFevre-Lowry, 80, said her main sources of information include Substack, a newsletter platform that features a contrarian group of doctors who doubt the legitimacy of vaccines while they promote unproven COVID treatments. She specified the work of Jay Bhattacharya, a professor of medicine at Stanford who has questioned the severity of the coronavirus while touting herd immunity over vaccines.
LeFevre-Lowry has several preexisting conditions that make her at risk of severe illness from COVID. But she’s adamantly opposed to getting boosted.
“No way,” she said. “I will just take my chances with whatever variant comes.”