With mask mandates being lifted, health officials dropping vaccine requirements, and top virus experts talking about the end of the country’s pandemic phase, many of us have started picturing our lives without the coronavirus. But even if we’re ready to let COVID go, the virus is holding fast to the ground. Numbers are back on the rise again in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In just the last week alone, infections have increased by more than 30 percent, while hospitalizations have gone up by over 17 percent.
As a result of the rising cases and hospitalizations, top U.S. health officials held their first coronavirus briefing in six weeks. These press conferences are led by the White House COVID-19 Response Team, who update the public on the current progression of the pandemic and how they can keep themselves safe.
During the May 18 briefing, Ashish Jha, MD, the new White House COVID-19 response coordinator, warned that the number of infections in the county is “actually substantially higher” than what the CDC is reporting right now, which is about 100,000 cases a day. According to Jha, the underreporting is likely the result of many people being diagnosed by at-home tests. Jha said that the large number of infections is being primarily driven by “incredibly contagious” subvariants of Omicron.
“We were hit with the BA.1 wave of infections in December, January. We saw BA.2. And now we’re seeing, in a large chunk of the country, BA.2.12.1,” he explained. “They are more contagious with more immune escape, and they are driving a lot of the increases in infection that we’re seeing across the nation right now. And that is—that is a huge challenge.”
Top White House COVID adviser Anthony Fauci, MD, said that the new subvariants pose a tough challenge for the U.S., and they’ve been allowed to rise up because people are still getting infected in large numbers around the world. “Variants will continue to emerge if the virus circulates globally. We can keep the level of virus to the lowest possible level, which is the best way to avoid variants. Because the less replication, the less mutation; the less mutation, the less variants,” he noted.
Variants make it impossible to eliminate COVID entirely, but there are ways to mitigate the risks and reduce the spread of the virus. According to the experts, the most effective step for individuals is to get every coronavirus vaccine or booster they are eligible for.
“Immunity does wane, and that is why it is so important to stay up to date with vaccines and particularly boosters,” Fauci said.
According to the CDC, about 220.3 million people, or more than 66 percent of the total U.S. population has been fully vaccinated as of May 12. But out of those, only 101.5 million people have received a booster dose—meaning about half of the total booster-eligible population has still not gotten their additional shot.
During the briefing, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, said that boosters are important for all individuals, especially for those more vulnerable to severe COVID, as an additional dose “may help strengthen their protection against infection, urgent care visits, and especially hospitalization and death.”
“So whether it is your first booster or your second, if you haven’t had a vaccine dose since the beginning of Dec. 2021 and you’re eligible, now is the time to get one,” Walensky advised.
Fauci also noted that vaccinations have already made a huge impact in the U.S., despite the amount of work that still needs to be done. “Vaccines continue to provide strong protection against severe disease. And that’s the reason why, as cases go up and even more infections than are recorded cases, the discrepancy or ratio between hospitalization and cases clearly is much less than it was, for example, in the Delta wave,” Fauci said.
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