The Biden administration is launching a new ad campaign to promote the updated bivalent COVID-19 vaccines, in hopes of accelerating a booster campaign that has begun to stall nationwide.

“It’s a new day, because COVID vaccines just got a big update,” a narrator says at the start of one of the spots, titled “Just in Time.” 

Federal health authorities have shelled out to air the ads on television, starting with commercial breaks during the ABC shows “Good Morning America” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” A radio spot on the “Big Update” will also air starting October 17. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) did not respond to a request for comment on how much the television spots would cost. Dr. Cameron Webb, a White House COVID-19 official, said HHS had been able to “shuffle around some dollars” to put together a campaign for the fall.

Print ads targeted to Native American and rural communities will also be appearing in newspapers in 18 cities, ranging from Albuquerque in New Mexico to Bangor in Maine.

“The new spots airing today send a powerful message about the importance of getting the updated vaccine ahead of the holidays, especially for people age 50 and up who are at disproportionate risk of hospitalization,” Sarah Lovenheim, the assistant secretary for public affairs for HHS, said in a statement.

The ad campaign marks a new front in the Biden administration’s messaging around the shots.  An earlier series of ads last month had focused only on the graver risks posed by the virus to Americans 50 years and older. 

Other ads with similar messages are also being targeted to these older adults on social media, an official said. The administration has directed much of its messaging effort at older and “hard-to-reach” communities, citing limited resources for their vaccination outreach.

The CDC recommends that all Americans ages 5 and older get one of the retooled boosters at least two months after their last shot of vaccine, in order to stay “up to date” on their immunizations. 

People who recently had COVID-19 can consider waiting three months after they got sick to get the shot, the agency says.

“The updated vaccines can protect against both the original COVID virus and Omicron. And that’s a moment we’ve all been waiting for,” a narrator says in the new spot.

A Halloween deadline

The new push comes ahead of a Halloween deadline by which health officials have urged Americans to get the updated COVID boosters ahead of a widely-expected winter wave of the virus, alongside their annual flu shots

“We have seen infections increase in previous winters and thanks to the vaccines we have today, it doesn’t have to be that way,” said Lovenheim.

COVID vaccinations had initially accelerated in the wake of updated boosters first being greenlighted in early September. However, federal figures last week revealed the pace of new vaccinations was beginning to slow once again nationwide

So far, more than 14.7 million doses of the updated COVID boosters from Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna have been administered, according to weekly figures published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last Thursday. 

That represents around 7% of the 209 million vaccinated Americans who were initially eligible for the updated COVID booster shots.

By comparison, 27 million adults had received an annual flu shot by October 9 last year, according to estimates published by the CDC from healthcare data firm IQVIA. By last Halloween, 46 million were vaccinated against the flu.

Polling suggest some of the gap in uptake could be the result of low awareness of the new COVID shots. 

Many Americans had said they would be open to getting a booster redesigned to target the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 variants, according to federal surveys before they were rolled out.

However, results published by the Kaiser Family Foundation last month found that more than half of vaccinated adults had heard little or nothing about the update to the COVID boosters, and 40% were unsure if they were recommended to get the shot. 

White House officials have denounced Congress for failing to adequately fund their vaccination outreach this fall. A request for COVID funding has languished on Capitol Hill for months.  

“We didn’t get additional funding from Congress. It made it really hard for us to continue to have that really broad public education effort, getting information to parents and families about vaccines,” Webb told a recent webinar hosted by the CDC Foundation. 

Webb said that the federal Department of Health and Human Services had been able to “shuffle around some dollars” to put together a campaign for the fall. 

However, he acknowledged the Biden administration’s public outreach for the boosters would have to rely largely on efforts from local doctors and health departments to promote the shots.

“It’s going to give some amount of space for that conversation. But really, it’s going to require local trusted messengers on the ground to take those conversations and run with it,” said Webb.