WASHINGTON — States with low booster rates for coronavirus vaccines could see COVID-19 deaths rise as strains of the Omicron variant spread across the US, White House pandemic response coordinator dr. Ashish Jha warned Sunday.
“A key pattern is emerging in the northeast that helps chart the path forward,” Jha wrote on Twitter. He and others have tried to allay concerns about the new wave of cases, pointing to readily available resources to keep people out of hospitals and morgues.
Infection rates in New England and the mid-Atlantic have been rising for weeks, driven by BA.2, a sub-variant of Omicron. Other subvariants including BA.2.12.1, BA.2.13, BA.4 and BA.5 have also been detected, with BA.2.12.1 notably gaining a foothold in the United States. These new subvariants “display potentially higher transferability than BA.2,” according to a recent study.
Previous infection of the original Omicron variant appears to offer little protection against reinfection by the latest subvariants. And while these new strains can also break through the vaccine firewall, booster shots seem to boost protection — making booster rates a particularly telling indication of how states could fare in the coming weeks.
“We have to accept that COVID-19 is here with us, and what needs to be done is to use the tools at our disposal to live with the disease while protecting the vulnerable,” Dr. Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University, told Yahoo News in a text message.
Not all states have embraced those tools—vaccines, boosters, and treatments—with equal enthusiasm. Masking has become a matter of choice, and Democratic states are just as open as those ruled by Republicans. The country marked its 1 millionth death from COVID-19 last week.
“It’s extremely difficult to avoid getting infected with the coronavirus,” Wen said.
The White House also warns that unless Congress provides $22.5 billion in funding, the nation will be unprepared for a fall wave, which could infect 100 million Americans, according to the Biden administration. “That’s the most important thing,” a White House official working on pandemic response told Yahoo News about a new round of funding. Jha repeated that message. “If Congress doesn’t do that now, we’ll go into this fall and winter with none of the capabilities we’ve developed over the past two years,” he told TSTIME on Sunday.
With summer approaching and new sub-variants of the coronavirus spreading, and with Congressional funding and Americans’ patience both dwindling, the Biden administration was faced with a dilemma over how to describe the current pandemic moment. It is unlikely to be the kind of declaration of victory that President Biden offered from the White House on Independence Day last year.
But there also seems to be little appetite for the kind of restrictions that followed the original Omicron wave earlier this year, when schools and businesses had to close again and some worried that 2022 would be too much like 2020. The vast majority of Americans have some form of immunity to the coronavirus, either from a previous infection or from vaccination. And while the new strains of Omicron are more transmissible, they don’t cause more serious disease.
“I expect this next wave to be much smaller than the one we had in January,” Julie Swann, a public health professor in the state of North Carolina, told USA Today.
In other words, keep calm and keep going – as long as you’re vaccinated and fortified, assess your risk, take masks on public transport, and isolate if you do get sick. Some may find such qualifications tricky, but public health officials — and many Democratic elected leaders — insist they are a prerequisite for a healthy return to normal life.
“We have entered the endemic phase where we (unfortunately) accept that COVID is not going away while increasing resources to our highest risk patients and populations,” Washington, DC, physician Lucy McBride told Yahoo News. “We cannot rule out risks; we can only mitigate it. And we know how to do that: with vaccines, ventilation and vigilance protecting the vulnerable.”
At the Gridiron Club gala and White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, both held in April in Washington, DC, attendees tested positive for the virus. New York Mayor Eric Adams tested positive for the coronavirus last month, as did Vice President Kamala Harris; New York Government Kathy Hochul announced her own asymptomatic coronavirus infection on Sunday.
But while some decried these as examples of a society prematurely rushing to reopen, others argued that communities that had taken the right measures were justified in returning to normal.
Jha was one of those present at the Correspondents Association gala, as well as the chairman. Neither of them wore a mask. The event reportedly made Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, is angry. He was scheduled to attend, only to announce that he would be staying away from the festivities, which had been canceled for the past two years; Politico went on to report that Fauci saw the dinner as “a disturbing sign that many Americans no longer view COVID as a serious threat.”
Jha’s thread on Twitter was something of a rebuttal from Fauci, who himself had recently said the “pandemic emergency” was over, to revise that comment after criticism.
The US as a whole now sees an average of about 70,000 new cases per day. By contrast, in March there were only 25,000 new cases per day across the country. But public health officials have been saying for months that the infection rate itself is a poor indicator of the state of the pandemic. Guidelines revised by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this year emphasized hospitalizations as a more accurate indicator of a community’s level of risk.
As Jha noted, infection spikes in states like Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island aren’t as worrisome as they are in 2020. “We’re seeing a real split between cases and deaths,” he wrote. Deaths from COVID-19 tend to follow peaks of infection by several weeks. They have remained exceptionally low in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, suggesting that the spike that started there in March killed few people.
Jha pointed out that the death rate (the number of deaths divided by the number of cases) in parts of the Northeast had fallen to 0.3%, about a fifth of what it had been before. New York City, once the center of the coronavirus epidemic with thousands of deaths daily, now records about five COVID-19 deaths a day.
High booster speeds help explain the difference. The protection of the original vaccine dose deteriorates over time, but can be restored by a booster. Individuals over 50 are now eligible for a second booster injection.
What was once considered “the pandemic of the unvaccinated” has once again broken with differential booster rates. Only 30% of the US population gets a boost. Rates are highest in the Northeast, with 83% of people over age 65 — the population most likely to suffer from serious illness — in Vermont. In contrast, only 36% of the elderly get a boost in North Carolina, and only 48% in Alabama.
Hospital admissions and fatalities could rise much steeper in those areas than in the northeast, Jha warned on Sunday. “Unfortunately, other parts of our country have lower booster rates and less testing, so the virus can more easily spread without detection. And the population is less well protected – which worries me for the coming weeks/months as BA.2.12.1 spreads to other less developed places.”