A new study published by researchers from the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania estimates that the slow rollout of COVID-19 booster shots in the U.S. has resulted in more than 10,000 preventable deaths and over 100,000 hospitalizations. The study, which used a mathematical model to simulate different scenarios of booster vaccination, found that an earlier and more aggressive booster campaign could have saved many lives and reduced the burden on the health care system.
The study, which was posted as a preprint on medRxiv and has not yet been peer-reviewed, compared the actual booster vaccination rates in the U.S. with two hypothetical scenarios: one in which booster shots were available and recommended for everyone aged 12 and older starting from September 2021, and another in which booster shots were only available and recommended for people aged 65 and older and those with high-risk medical conditions starting from October 2021.
The researchers used data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other sources to estimate the number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths that occurred in each scenario from September 2021 to March 2023. They also calculated the direct medical costs and the value of statistical lives (VSL) associated with each scenario.
The results showed that the actual booster vaccination rates in the U.S., which were lower than the hypothetical scenarios, led to more than 10,000 additional deaths and over 100,000 additional hospitalizations compared to the scenario with universal booster availability and recommendation. The difference in direct medical costs was estimated to be $6.3 billion, and the difference in VSL was estimated to be $83.6 billion.
The researchers also found that the scenario with universal booster availability and recommendation could have prevented more than 75,000 deaths and over 745,000 hospitalizations compared to the scenario with limited booster availability and recommendation. The difference in direct medical costs was estimated to be $44 billion, and the difference in VSL was estimated to be $625.5 billion.
The challenges and benefits of booster vaccination
The study highlights the challenges and benefits of booster vaccination in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has claimed more than 800,000 lives in the U.S. and more than 5 million lives worldwide. The study acknowledges that there are many factors that affect the booster vaccination rates, such as vaccine supply, distribution, access, acceptance, and equity. The study also recognizes that there are uncertainties and limitations in the model assumptions and parameters, such as the vaccine effectiveness, the transmission dynamics, and the omicron variant.
However, the study provides evidence that booster shots can significantly reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection, hospitalization, and death, especially for older and high-risk populations, who are more vulnerable to the disease and its complications. The study also suggests that booster shots can have substantial economic benefits, by saving lives and reducing health care costs.
The study supports the recommendations of the CDC and other health authorities, who have urged eligible Americans to get their booster shots as soon as possible. According to the CDC, as of December 4, 2023, more than 200 million Americans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and more than 100 million Americans have received a booster shot or an additional dose. The CDC recommends that everyone aged 18 and older should get a booster shot at least six months after completing their primary vaccination series with Pfizer or Moderna, or at least two months after receiving a single dose of Johnson & Johnson. The CDC also recommends that people aged 12 to 17 who received Pfizer should get a booster shot at least six months after their second dose, if they have certain medical conditions or are at increased risk of exposure.
The study concludes that booster vaccination is a critical tool to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, and that accelerating and expanding the booster campaign could save thousands of lives and billions of dollars in the U.S. The study also calls for more research and data to monitor the impact of booster shots on the COVID-19 epidemiology and outcomes.