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How soon before vaccinated Americans start arranging their own boosters?

AP Photo/Matt Marton

Let me make clear up front that I’m not condoning this. The CDC and FDA rebuked Pfizer less than two weeks ago for touting the benefits of a booster at a moment when Americans don’t need one. Pfizer works exceptionally well even against the Delta variant in preventing severe illness. The feds are worried about getting the first two shots into people who haven’t had any, not getting a third into those who are already protected.

But the more ominous the news about Delta gets, the more inevitable it seems to me that some people will go rogue and arrange for a third shot on their own. Pandemic America is split between two groups — not the vaccinated and unvaccinated but the risk-averse and the risk-neutral. (Which map pretty closely with the vaccinated and unvaccinated.) Media attention is focused almost entirely on the risk-neutral right now, wondering what we can do to convince them to get immunized. Probably not much, per Axios’s latest poll:

Most Americans who still aren’t vaccinated say nothing — not their own doctor administering it, a favorite celebrity’s endorsement or even paid time off — is likely to make them get the shot, according to the latest installment of the Axios/Ipsos Coronavirus Index…

30% of U.S. adults in our national survey said they haven’t yet gotten the COVID-19 vaccine — half of them a hard no, saying they’re “not at all likely” to take it. We asked the unvaccinated about how likely they’d be to take it in a number of scenarios:

The best prospect was a scenario in which they could get the vaccine at their regular doctor’s office. But even then, 55% said they’d remain not at all likely and only 7% said they’d be “very likely” to do it. That leaves a combined 35% who are either somewhat likely or not very likely but haven’t ruled it out.

Risk-neutrality tends to be full-spectrum, unfortunately, meaning that people who don’t worry enough about the virus to get vaccinated often don’t worry enough about it to mask up or avoid crowds either. Unsurprisingly, the alarms about Delta are also less impressive to the unvaccinated than to those who’ve been immunized:

It’s worth asking, though: If the risk-neutral are greeting Delta’s arrival the way we’d expect, with a collective shrug, might the risk-averse be greeting Delta the way we’d expect them to as well? Despite their being vaccinated, I’d expect them to start masking again and to avoid indoor spaces — and, in some cases, to avail themselves of a third shot in light of the study results from Pfizer that show a booster increases one’s antibodies five or tenfold. I’ve already heard of people, including a virologist, who got a booster for their shot of Johnson & Johnson because they feared a single dose might not be equal to the task against Delta:

The CDC announced today that Delta now accounts for 83 percent of new infections in the U.S., up from 50 percent in less than three weeks. The risk-averse are reading that, knowing they’re mostly protected against the virus right now, and some are thinking, “Why not be a little more protected?” If you got your first two shots at Walgreens, presumably it’d be easy enough to waltz into CVS and announce that you’re unvaccinated and would like your first dose of Pfizer, please.

And voila, there’s your booster.

In fact, the cynic in me wonders if that’s why Pfizer released the results of their booster study. They can’t make the FDA authorize a third shot but they can certainly wink at the risk-averse who are interested in one by hinting that they’d benefit from arranging for one on the sly.

And there might be a lot of Americans out there willing to do that, particularly knowing that we have a glut of vaccines and they won’t be hogging any doses from the unvaccinated who are waiting for one:

More than 6 in 10 vaccinated Americans now say they would get an additional COVID-19 booster shot if it were available to them, according to a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll.

The survey of 1,715 U.S. adults, which was conducted from July 13 to 15, found that a full 62 percent of those who’ve been vaccinated would receive another jab if possible, while just 18 percent would decline. Another 20 percent are not sure…

Paradoxically … a full 77 percent of vaccinated Americans are worried about the spread of Delta — yet just 51 percent of unvaccinated Americans share their concern. Likewise, a mere 18 percent of unvaccinated Americans say they plan to protect themselves from Delta and other variants by getting vaccinated in the future — less than a third of the share of vaccinated Americans who say they want an additional layer of protection from a yet-to-be-approved booster shot.

The risk-averse are ready for shot three. I haven’t seen any reports yet of people surreptitiously getting a third shot but I’m sure they’re out there and I bet we’ll be reading about them in the media soon. We might even hear some arguments made that vaccinated people should be allowed to get a booster if they want simply in the interest of not letting millions of expiring doses go to waste. Is it better to let Pfizer and Moderna vials rot on the shelves of pharmacies waiting for unvaccinated people to change their minds or to let the COVID worriers juice up so that they feel more secure?

Maybe I’m being too pessimistic about the unvaccinated refusing to get their shots, though. For all the bloviating online over the last few days about how to persuade them, there may be only one entity capable of changing the minds of the remaining persuadables: Delta. Just ask the House’s newest vaccinated member, Steve Scalise.

Scalise received his first Pfizer vaccination on Sunday at an Ochsner clinic in Jefferson Parish…

“Especially with the delta variant becoming a lot more aggressive and seeing another spike, it was a good time to do it,” he said in an interview. “When you talk to people who run hospitals, in New Orleans or other states, 90% of people in hospital with delta variant have not been vaccinated. That’s another signal the vaccine works.”…

“It’s safe and effective,” Scalise said, noting he supported funding that allowed the Trump administration to fast-track the process. “It was heavily tested on thousands of people before the FDA gave its approval. Some people believe that it might have been rushed. That’s not the case. I’ve been vocal about that for months. I know their process has high standards. The FDA approval process is probably the most respected in the world.”

Good man. I hope he stays safe for the next few weeks until he get the second dose, as a single shot isn’t much good against the new variant.