The omicron-specific bivalent COVID-19 boosters could potentially prevent tens of thousands of deaths in the U.S. and save billions of dollars in health care costs if a successful immunization campaign is carried out, according to new research.
New projections released by the Commonwealth Fund on Wednesday showed that roughly 90,000 deaths due to the coronavirus could be prevented if 80 percent of eligible people receive the updated booster by the end of this year.
The projection included those as young as five, taking into account Pfizer’s recent application for authorization to administer its newest booster shot to younger children. This application has yet to be authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and only children as young as 12 are currently authorized to receive omicron-specific booster shots.
Only about half of the U.S. population has received their first boosters and only about two-thirds of the population has completed the primary two-dose regimen needed to be eligible for the bivalent booster.
September polling data from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that only about a third of adults said they planned on getting the updated booster, and about 5 percent said they had already received it.
The Commonwealth Fund’s projection also estimated more than 930,000 hospitalizations, $56 billion in medical costs and nearly 26 million infections could also be averted if a widespread, accelerated vaccination campaign was carried out between October and December.
In a more conservative projection — one that operated under a scenario in which booster coverage matched that of flu shot coverage during the 2020-2021 flu season — the Commonwealth Fund found that more than 75,000 deaths and 745,000 hospitalizations could be prevented. In the 2020-2021 flu season, about 52 percent of people over the age of six months got flu shots.
Recent polling data from the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases found that flu vaccine uptake could reflect previous years, with 49 percent saying they planned on getting the flu shot.
The White House has encouraged people to get their flu shots and COVID-19 booster shots at the same time, with Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra saying in September, “I really believe this is why God gave us two arms.”
The Commonwealth Fund also projected a potential scenario in which booster shot uptake continued at its current rate through March 2023. If a winter surge were to occur while vaccination rates stay at their current pace, the organization estimated that the U.S. could see a wave of cases peaking at 16,000 per day along with 1,200 daily deaths by the end of March.
Coronavirus cases and deaths have been on a steady decline after peaking in July due to the spread of the BA.4 and BA.5 omicron subvariants. While these new sub-lineages of the COVID-19 virus have been observed to better evade immune protection offered by vaccinations and prior infections, health experts have said that the protection offered by primary immunization should still be effective at preventing severe illness that could lead to hospitalization and death.
“As population immunity wanes and new variants capable of evading protection from earlier vaccines and natural infection continue to emerge, surges in hospitalizations and deaths during the upcoming fall and winter are increasingly likely,” the Commonwealth Fund said in a statement.
“The recent FDA approval of bivalent boosters offers an opportunity to curb transmission; a vaccination campaign that moves aggressively could avert a surge of hospitalizations and deaths, and save money in the process.”
The foundation acknowledged there were limitations within these projections, including the lack of human data proving the bivalent booster’s effectiveness against BA.4 and BA.5 as well as the exclusion of other factors like holiday-driven contact.