President Biden’s coronavirus response team warned Americans on Tuesday that they must do more to protect themselves from Covid-19 as the highly transmissible BA.5 subvariant of the coronavirus fuels a new wave of infections, reinfections and hospitalizations across the country.
BA.5, an offshoot of the Omicron variant, is now dominant in the United States. The White House has seen it march through Europe and South Africa, and on Tuesday the response team began outlining its strategy for fighting the subvariant, which appears to be able to evade vaccines, as well as the immune system’s defenses built up from previous infection. (Watch the briefing live here.)
“The key feature of BA.5, which we know of, is immune system evasion – you can be fully vaccinated and boosted and still be at risk of a breakthrough infection,” Dr. Ashish K. Jha, Mr Biden’s coronavirus response coordinator, said in an interview Monday. “You can be infected before — even as recently as the last few months — and have a very high rate of reinfection.”
During Tuesday’s briefing, Dr. Jha said the government is already planning such a time, and told Americans they can take steps to protect themselves by getting vaccinated or boosted; test if they feel sick; seeking therapies if they test positive and wear masks in crowded places to minimize the spread of the virus.
“We can prevent serious diseases,” he said. “We can keep people out of the hospital and especially out of the ICU. We can save lives and we can minimize the disruptions caused by Covid-19. And even in the light of BA5, the tools we have continue to work.”
As part of the strategy to fight BA.5, federal officials are considering extending eligibility for second coronavirus booster shots to adults under 50, according to several people familiar with the thinking. Other than that, the plans don’t sound very different from those to fight previous Omicron sub-variants.
A White House fact sheet said the government would continue to advise Americans, especially those 50 and older and those who are vulnerable, to get booster shots; to test for symptoms; and to seek therapies, including Paxlovid, which has been shown to reduce the risk of hospitalization and death if they become ill.
“Variations will continue to appear as the virus circulates worldwide and in this country,” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, Mr. Biden’s chief medical adviser to the pandemic, during the briefing. “We must not let it disrupt our lives. But we cannot deny that it is a reality that we have to deal with.”
Now that Americans have turned their attention to the pandemic, mask mandates have been abolished and people go about their daily lives, often viewing Covid as more of a nuisance than a threat. But experts warn that the pandemic is far from over, even if it has faded from the everyday consciousness of Americans.
The daily number of reported cases in the United States has remained steady at about 100,000 — a figure many experts believe is underreported because so many people test at home. But hospital admissions have risen 18 percent in the past two weeks, according to a DailyExpertNews database.
dr. Jha said that figure may reflect those hospitalized for medical problems other than Covid but who test positive. But some other experts have said the surge in hospitalizations suggests a BA.5 spike is already underway.
“We’re gaining momentum,” says Dr. Eric Topol, cardiologist and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute. Referring to the early days of the first Omicron peak, he added: “It won’t be as bad as what we experienced in January. But it’s not good. And we actually let our guard down.”
In a recent post on Substack, Dr. Topol BA.5 “the worst version of the virus we’ve seen.”
Currently, according to The Times’ database, a national average of about 330 deaths from coronavirus are reported every day, down from more than 2,600 a day at the height of the Omicron wave. But if the average of 330 held steady for a year, it would equate to more than 120,000 deaths — a figure Dr. Jha ‘unacceptable’. By comparison, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that flu has claimed 12,000 to 52,000 lives in the United States annually between 2010 and 2020.
Since April, when Dr. Jha Jeffrey D. Ziess as the coronavirus response coordinator, White House Covid briefings have continued to decline. The last briefing was almost three weeks ago. In addition to Dr. Fauci, who was recovering from his own battle with Covid last month, became Dr. Jha Tuesday accompanied by Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the CDC director.
Looking ahead, said Dr. Jha that getting a booster dose now wouldn’t prevent people from getting another booster in the fall, reformulated to fight Omicron and its sub-variants. Last month, a committee of experts recommended that the Food and Drug Administration update booster shots to address various forms of Omicron.
But those doses may not be available until October, said Dr. yah. And even then, the administration may not have enough booster shots for every American who wants one, because Congress has refused to grant additional pandemic aid. In the event of a shortage, he said, the government would prioritize older Americans and those with specific vulnerabilities.
“I hope this isn’t a decision we have to make,” said Dr. yah. “But it’s going to get harder and harder to get vaccines on time the longer Congress waits.”