While COVID-19 may have started to become an afterthought to many Americans, it may feel like a new variant snuck up and is now driving infection and hospitalization rates higher.
The new subvariant of Omicron, BA.5, shows how the virus continues to evolve around the best efforts of humanity to defeat it.
The surge in cases is global, thanks to both BA.5 and another subvariant, BA.4, according to CNN’s report by Eliza Mackintosh.
She explains how BA.5 is able to get around vaccine protections to infect people, although it has not yet produced a surge in the most serious cases that lead to ICU admissions and deaths in the US.
BA.5 is now the dominant variant in the US
It is transmissible even to people who were recently infected with COVID-19 as well as those who are fully vaccinated.
In the latest example of the evolving science moving the goal posts for protection against severe cases of COVID-19, second boosters — beyond full vaccination, an initial booster and previous infection — are now the best protection for older Americans.
Get boosted. And if you can, get re-boosted
Public health officials are urging adults 50 and older to get second booster shots.
But many still aren’t paying attention; only about a quarter of these eligible adults have received a second booster.
People under 50 are left to wonder when they will be able to get another dose.
But the White House argued Tuesday that BA.5 is not cause for alarm.
“The message that I want to get across to the American people is this: BA.5 is something we’re closely monitoring, and most importantly, we know how to manage it,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House’s COVID-19 response coordinator.
Protection is up to you
You can minimize your risk of infection if you take precautions, according to Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.
“The question people should ask is this: How much do they want to continue to avoid infection?” Wen told CNN’s Katia Hetter, arguing that the virus is all around us and many people “may not want to plan their lives around COVID-19 precautions anymore, especially if they are generally healthy and well-protected from severe illness.”
But that’s not everyone.
“On the other hand, many people may still prioritize not contracting COVID-19 because of the risk of long-haul symptoms,” Wen said. “They may also have underlying medical conditions that predispose to more severe outcomes themselves, or they may live with others who are more vulnerable and want to reduce their risk to those around them.”
We may not know how extensive the BA.5 surge actually is since the official count could miss the vast majority of new infections, which could be as high as 1 million per day, according to CNN’s reporting.
One contributing factor to the undercount: the increasing reliance on at-home COVID-19 tests, the results of which are hardly ever reported to health authorities.
On Monday, CNN’s Jake Tapper talked to Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital, who said this surge will likely hit the South especially hard this summer, as two surges have already done.
“This is a full-on BA.5 wave, unfortunately, that we’re experiencing in the summer, and it’s actually looking worse in the Southern states. Guess what? Just like 2020, just like 2021.”
He said the vaccines are really only effective against the new subvariant if you’re boosted and, if eligible, double boosted.
“I think that’s the game changer with this BA.5 subvariant. … One dose, two doses is not enough. Being infected and recovered, especially with Omicron, is not enough. You have to get that booster, preferably two boosters if you’re over the age of 50.”
What about more boosters for those under 50?
CNN reported on Monday that “US health officials are urgently working on a plan to allow second COVID-19 boosters for all adults” amid fears that younger adults’ immunity may be waning as cases rise with the dominance of BA.5.
Hotez pointed out that the boosters may not stop infections, but they will certainly be more effective against hospitalizations and death.
Vaccines for those under 5
While adults 50 and older are being asked to get a fourth dose, the youngest Americans, those under 5, are just recently eligible for their first two — and the data suggests very slow going.
CNN reported last week that just about 2% of Americans under 5, or around 300,000 children, had received at least one shot since the vaccine was authorized for this age group on June 17.
COVID-19 is not usually as dangerous for the youngest Americans, although there have been hundreds of deaths.
Dr. Edith Bracho-Sanchez, a pediatrician, described herself as “an anxious new mom,” but wrote for CNN about why she got her 9-month-old son vaccinated.
She gave three main reasons, excerpted below:
First, COVID-19 is an unpredictable illness. While most children have minor symptoms and recover well, many have landed in hospitals and emergency rooms, and to date, more than 400 children under the age of 5 have died from the illness in the United States alone, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. …
Second … the vaccine is in the body for a short period of time … It instructs the body to make protective antibodies against COVID-19, and the body’s own cellular mechanisms quickly break it down soon after. Because of this, there really is no plausible way it will interfere with my little William’s development, something about which I am constantly thinking. …
Lastly … believing in the rigorous process the vaccines went through to obtain approval, I believe the US Food and Drug Administration and CDC recruited some of the most brilliant minds of our time to serve on the independent panels that reviewed the data and recommended giving the vaccines the green light.
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