With new omicron variants again increasing hospital admissions and deaths in recent weeks, states and cities are rethinking their responses and the White House is stepping up efforts to alert the public.
Some experts have said the warnings are too little, too late.
The highly transmissible variant BA.5 now accounts for 65% of cases, with its cousin BA.4 contributing an additional 16%. The variants have shown a remarkable ability to circumvent the protection offered by infection and vaccination.
“It’s much later than the warning could have been given,” said Dr. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, who called BA.5 “the worst variant yet.”
Global trends for both mutants have been apparent for weeks, experts said – they are rapidly outperforming older variants and pushing cases higher wherever they appear. Still, Americans threw off their masks and plunged back into travel and social gatherings. And they’ve largely ignored booster shots, which protect against the worst outcomes of COVID-19. Courts have blocked federal mask and vaccine mandates, tying the hands of US officials.
“We are learning a lot from how the virus acts elsewhere and we should apply the knowledge here,” said Ali Mokdad, professor of health metrics science at the University of Washington in Seattle.
White House COVID-19 coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha appeared on morning television Wednesday, urging booster shots and renewed vigilance. Still, Mokdad said federal health officials need to put more emphasis on indoor masks, early detection and prompt antiviral treatment.
“They’re not doing everything they can,” Mokdad said.
The administration’s challenge, in the White House’s view, is not their message, but people’s willingness to hear it — due to pandemic fatigue and the politicization of the virus response.
For months, the White House has encouraged Americans to use free or inexpensive rapid home tests to detect the virus, as well as the free and highly effective antiviral treatment Paxlovid that protects against serious illness and death. On Tuesday, the White House response team called on all adults aged 50 and over to urgently get a booster if they haven’t already done so this year – and dissuaded people from waiting the next generation of vaccines expected in the fall when they can roll up their sleeves and get some protection now.
Los Angeles County, the nation’s largest by population, faces a return to a broad indoor mask mandate if current trends in hospital admissions continue, the county director said Tuesday. Health Barbara Ferrer to county supervisors.
“I recognize that when we return to universal indoor masking to reduce high spread, for many it will feel like a step backwards,” Ferrer said. But she stressed that the mask requirement “helps us reduce risk”.
LA County has long required masks in certain indoor spaces, including healthcare facilities, subways and buses, airports, prisons and homeless shelters. A universal mandate would extend the requirement to all indoor public spaces, including shared offices, manufacturing facilities, warehouses, retail stores, restaurants and bars, theaters and schools.
The country’s brief lull in COVID deaths has reversed. Last month, daily deaths fell, although they never reached the lowest of last year, and deaths are now rising.
The seven-day average of daily deaths in the United States rose 26% over the past two weeks to 489 on July 12.
The coronavirus isn’t killing as many as it did last fall and winter, and experts don’t expect death to hit those levels again anytime soon. But hundreds of daily deaths from summer respiratory disease would normally be breathtaking, said Andrew Noymer, a professor of public health at the University of California, Irvine. He noted that in Orange County, California, 46 people died of COVID-19 in June.
“That would be everyone on deck,” Noymer said. “People would say, ‘There’s this crazy new flu that’s killing people in June. “”
Instead, simple, proven precautions are not taken. Vaccinations, including boosters for those eligible, reduce the risk of hospitalization and death, even against the latest variants. But less than half of all eligible American adults have received a single booster, and only about 1 in 4 Americans ages 50 and older who are eligible for a second booster have received one.
“It was a botched recall campaign,” Topol said, noting that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still uses the term “fully vaccinated” for people who received two shots of Moderna or Pfizer. “They didn’t understand that two shots are totally insufficient,” he said.
Noymer said if he was in charge of the nation’s COVID response, he would get on the level of the American people in an effort to get their attention in this third year of the pandemic. He would tell Americans to take it seriously, to mask up indoors and “until we get better vaccines, there will be a new normal of a disease that kills over 100,000 Americans a year and has an impact on life expectancy.
That message probably wouldn’t get through for political reasons, Noymer acknowledged.
It also might not fly with people tired of taking precautions after more than two years of the pandemic. Valerie Walker of New Hope, Pennsylvania is aware of the latest surge but is hardly alarmed.
“I was really worried at the time,” she said of the early days of the pandemic, with images of body bags on evening news broadcasts. “Now there’s fatigue, things were improving and there was a vaccine. So I’d say on a scale between one and 10, I’m probably a four.
Even with two friends now sick with the virus and her recently recovered husband, Walker says she has bigger problems.
“Sometimes when I think about it, I still put on a mask when I walk into a store, but honestly, that’s not a daily thought for me,” she said.
Associated Press writers Christopher Weber in Los Angeles, Bobby Caina Calvan in New York and Zeke Miller in Washington contributed.
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