BISMARCK — More than 96,000 North Dakotans considered to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 have gotten an additional shot to boost their immunity, according to state Department of Health data from last week.

Over the last several months, vaccine providers have begun offering booster doses of the COVID-19 vaccine — first to the immunocompromised, then to older adults and those working high-risk jobs.

Guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have thus far limited eligibility for booster doses to certain higher-risk adults, but a top panel from the agency endorsed boosters Friday for all adults who are six months out from their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or two months out from their single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. If CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky accepts the panel's recommendation as expected, booster shots could be available to all adults as soon as this weekend, according to The New York Times.

People who completed their first vaccination series have been far less likely to become hospitalized or die due to COVID-19 than their unvaccinated counterparts, but North Dakota immunization program manager Molly Howell and health experts across the country are promoting booster shots because evidence has emerged that the level of immunity granted by the jab wanes over time.

The highly contagious nature of the now-dominant delta variant of the virus may also be contributing to a rise in cases and hospitalizations among the fully vaccinated, necessitating an extra dose, Howell said.

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“If you really don’t want to get COVID and if you don’t want to get seriously ill, you should probably get boosted," Howell said.

Just like the initial rollout of the vaccine, no demographic has accepted booster shots more willingly than nursing home residents. More than 69% of residents and 22% of staff at 141 of North Dakota's long-term care facilities have received a booster shot, according to a poll conducted by the state Department of Health.

Nursing home residents have been receptive to getting boosters because they witnessed the devastation of the virus firsthand and view vaccines as the way out of the pandemic, said Shelly Peterson, president of the North Dakota Long Term Care Association.

More than 960 residents of long-term care have died of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, but fatalities all but stopped after vaccines became available, Peterson noted. Residents are good candidates for boosters since they often have underlying health conditions and may have gotten their first shots nearly a year ago, she said. Nursing home administrators have worked to put on clinics within the facilities to make getting a booster dose convenient.

North Dakotans 65 and older have so far driven much of the demand for booster shots — more than 44% have received an extra dose, Howell said.

North Dakota Department of Health Immunization Program Manager Molly Howell speaks at a news conference on Aug. 23, 2021. (Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service)
North Dakota Department of Health Immunization Program Manager Molly Howell speaks at a news conference on Aug. 23, 2021. (Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service)

The state that ranks among the least vaccinated in the country had to ask for an increase in its federal allocation a few weeks ago due to hot demand for booster doses, she added. However, Howell said she expects the number of residents seeking boosters to decline in the near future after eager vaccine believers get the additional shot.

The booster doses have meaningfully mitigated the spread of the virus in high-vaccination countries like Israel, and Howell urged eligible North Dakotans to seek the added protection at one of North Dakota's 418 vaccine providers. She noted that the available vaccines can be mixed and matched, so those who received Moderna or Johnson & Johnson the first go-around can get Pfizer or vice versa.

More information about vaccines can be found at www.health.nd.gov/covidvaccinelocator.