The White House COVID-19 response team held a news conference Tuesday in which officials focused on the threat posed by the rise of the highly transmissible BA.5 subvariant, what people can do to protect themselves, and what steps the government is taking.
Here are some key takeaways from the remarks by White House COVID-19 response coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, and the nation’s top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is President Biden’s chief medical adviser.
1. BA.5 is taking over
Walensky said the CDC now estimates that BA.5 accounts for 65 percent of US COVID-19 cases, while its sister subvariant BA.4 accounts for 16 percent. The BA.2.12.1 variant, which is being pushed off the stage, accounts for most of the rest of cases.
2. Vaccination remains key
“Vaccines remain our single most important tool to protect people against serious illness, hospitalizations, and deaths. And staying up to date is essential as we see BA.5 rise across the country. We encourage all Americans to get vaccinated if they haven’t already,” Jha said.
“Staying up to date” means getting all the shots that you’re recommended to get, which includes second booster shots for many older people.
3. Older people, in particular, should get boosted
Jha said that “for people who are 50 years of age or older, my message is simple: If you have not gotten a vaccine shot in the year 2022, if you have not gotten one this year, please go get another vaccine shot. You are eligible for your first booster or second booster — wherever you are in your vaccination schedule — if you’ve not gotten the vaccine shot this year, go get one now.”
“It could save your life,” he said.
Walensky said, “The reason to get a booster now is to prevent infection now. There’s a lot of infections now and an increasing number of hospitalizations now.”
4. Go ahead and get a shot now — you will still be able to get the new booster this fall
The officials reassured people that if they get a booster now, they will still be able to get the updated booster that’s expected to be available in the fall.
“Getting vaccinated now will not preclude you from getting a variant-specific vaccine later in this fall or winter,” Jha said.
Walensky said there are “potentially more infections to come before that fall booster is available, which is why we really want to make sure people have as much protection as they can right now.”
5. Opening second boosters to all adults is under consideration
Asked about reports that officials are considering a second booster for all adults, not just those 50 and older, Jha said, “Let me be very clear. We have conversations all the time about what are possible things we can be doing to better protect the American people. So those conversations have been going on for a while.”
But he also said the decisions would be up to the CDC and US Food and Drug Administration, which, he said, have been pondering it. “The decision is purely up to them,” he said.
6. Don’t count on immunity from having been sick with COVID-19 already
Walensky said people who’ve had COVID-19, even with the variants that arrived late last year in the Omicron surge, could still get BA.4 or BA.5.
“People with prior infection, even with BA.1 or BA.2, are likely still at risk for BA.4 or BA.5,” she said.
“We do not know yet about the clinical severity of BA.4 or BA.5 in comparison to our other Omicron subvariants, but we do know it to be more transmissible and more immune-evading,” Walensky said.
7. Different places may see different BA.5 impacts
Walensky said several factors will play a role in how BA.4 and BA.5 race through different parts of the United States.
“These factors include the level of vaccination and boosting in communities, the amount of prior infection a community experienced, and the level of public health mitigation measures that are in place,” she said.
8. The good news
The officials offered some good news along with their warnings and entreaties to get vaccinated, saying the vaccines may not prevent people from getting infected but will protect against severe disease.
“The vaccine effectiveness against severe disease, fortunately for us, is not reduced substantially or at all, compared to other Omicron subvariants,” said Fauci.
Jha said the government has been closely monitoring BA.5 and “we know how to manage it.”
“We have all the capabilities we need to protect the American people: vaccines and boosters, treatments, tests, masks, ventilation, and so much more. But beyond just having these capabilities, we have the infrastructure we need to make these tools widely available and easily accessible,” he said.
“We can prevent serious illness. 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 face of BA.5, the tools we have continue to work. We are at a point in the pandemic where most COVID 19 deaths are preventable,” he said.
Martin Finucane can be reached at email@example.com.