Massachusetts' Commissioner of Public Health Dr. Robbie Goldstein didn't flinch as he got the latest COVID-19 booster shot in his right arm and a flu shot on his left.
"This is a life-saving vaccine," Goldstein said to reporters after getting his shot at Whittier Street Health Center in Roxbury on Wednesday. "Whether you've had COVID five times before or never before, whether you've had all of your boosters or none of your prior shots, going out and getting vaccinated is what's going to protect you from severe disease, hospitalization and from potential death."
Goldstein was joined in Roxbury by one of the nation's top public health officials, Dr. Mandy Cohen, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"I think most folks are saying, 'You know, I've had COVID before, I've gotten vaccinated already. Why do I need to do this?'" Cohen said. "And what I want folks to understand is that that protection is decreasing over time and this virus is changing."
The latest COVID-19 booster targets the XBB.1.5 subvariant, which was the dominant strain earlier this year, and also protects against some newer variants.
"So those are the two reasons why I am really recommending that everyone get an updated COVID vaccine, if you're over the age of 6 months," Cohen added.
Cohen said at least four million people have gotten the latest booster shot so far, nationally.
In, Massachusetts, 31% of residents have gotten at least one booster shot, according to the CDC. That's compared to just 17% of the national population.
The state Department of Public Health launched new online dashboard Thursday that allows users to see the latest data on COVID-19 infections, as well as information about the flu and RSV.
The new dashboard rates the current severity level of all three viruses as low, based on emergency department visits, hospital admissions and deaths.
State Epidemiologist Dr. Catherine Brown says it became clear during last year's so-called "tripledemic" that an information resource combining data on all three viral respiratory illnesses would be useful.
"We're heading into a winter where, COVID, influenza and RSV are likely to co-circulate," Brown said in a press call previewing the site on Wednesday. "Last season with the tripledemic, we were started to really see what our future might look like."
The site says, so far, just 2.5% of people in Massachusetts have received the newest COVID-19 booster. Just under 9% has gotten a flu shot this season.
A surveyfrom the Kaiser Family Foundation released last week said 47% of Americans plan to get the new COVID-19 booster.
"Prior years, we had a federal government that was distributing the vaccine in a coordinated fashion all across the country, and supply was pretty much guaranteed the moment that the vaccine was approved," Goldstein said. "This year, we have a different system in place."
This time, the vaccines are being purchased and distributed by the private sector.
"So I don't think we should use the early numbers to tell us exactly what's going to happen this season," he said, pointing to lines at the Whittier Street Health Center as an indication of what he hoped would be demand for the latest shot.
"You can see here, people are excited to get vaccinated. We just need to make sure that we continue to match demand with supply, continue to get COVID vaccine into these clinics," Goldstein continued. "And also, I should say, make sure there's flu vaccine there for them and make sure there's RSV vaccine for those that are eligible."
He added that the vaccine is free. For people with insurance, their provider should cover both the copay and vaccine cost. For uninsured people, the federal government covers the cost through the Bridge Access Program that sends vaccines to community health centers, mobile providers and some pharmacies.
Goldstein noted that COVID-19 hospitalization rates are lower than they've been the last two years at this time.
"But we have to be honest that hospitals across the state are at really high capacity levels," he said. "That has a lot to do with a lot of other factors that are happening here in Massachusetts. So we're watching closely. We want to make sure the hospitals have what they need as we move in to potential surges. If we start to see hospitalizations increase, we want to make sure we're working with them so that they have the beds they need, the ICU beds, they need, the ventilators, the personal protective equipment, all of the stuff that that's really necessary to protect people."