The White House COVID-19 response team held a press conference on Tuesday, focusing on the threat posed by the spread of the highly infectious BA.5 subvariant, what people can do to protect themselves, and what steps the government will take.
Here are some major points from the speeches of White House COVID-19 response coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s principal medical adviser.
Also read: What is Omicron BA.5?
According to Walensky, the CDC now believes that BA.5 accounts for 65 percent of US COVID-19 cases, whereas BA.4 accounts for 16 percent. The BA.2.12.1 variety, which is being phased out, accounts for the majority of the remaining occurrences.
Vaccination is at the forefront
“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 explained.
“Staying up to date” entails having all of the necessary vaccinations, which for many older people includes second booster shots.
Booster dose, especially for older people
“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,” Jha added.
“It could save your life,” he explained.
“The reason to get a booster now is to prevent infection now,” Walensky explained. “There’s a lot of infections now and an increasing number of hospitalizations now.”
Officials reassured people that if they purchase a booster now, they will still be able to purchase the updated booster, which is expected to be ready in the fall.
“Getting vaccinated now will not preclude you from getting a variant-specific vaccine later in this fall or winter,” Jha stated.
“There are “potentially more infections to come before that fall booster is available,” Alensky said, “which is why we really want to make sure people have as much protection as they can right now.”
Considering a second booster shot for adults
When asked about allegations that officials are planning a second booster shot for all adults, not just those over 50, Jha responded, “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.”
However, he also stated that the decisions would be made by the CDC and the US Food and Drug Administration, which he stated have been considering. “The decision is purely up to them,” he said.
Not advisable to bank on immunity from a previous infection alone
People who have had COVID-19, even with the mutations that came late last year in the Omicron surge, could still get BA.4 or BA.5, according to Walensky.
“People with prior infection, even with BA.1 or BA.2, are likely still at risk for BA.4 or BA.5,” she warned.
“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 added.
Different strategies for different places based on how the virus behaves
Several factors, according to Walensky, will influence how BA.4 and BA.5 race across 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 stated.
The good news
Along with their warnings and pleas to get vaccinated, experts offered some good news, stating that the immunizations may not prevent infection but will protect against severe sickness.
“The vaccine effectiveness against severe disease, fortunately for us, is not reduced substantially or at all, compared to other Omicron subvariants,” Fauci assured.
Jha stated that the government has been keeping a close eye on BA.5 and that “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 stated.
“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 concluded.