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Biden officials urge use of booster shots, antivirals against BA.5

‘The tools we have continue to work’ against new variants, says White House coordinator

White House coronavirus coordinator Ashish Jha, shown in April, said vaccines, booster shots and antiviral treatments are effective against the BA.4 and BA.5 variants. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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Biden administration officials warned Tuesday that the latest coronavirus variants are driving a new wave of cases across the country and urged Americans to take precautions to protect themselves against infection, reinfection and serious illness.

The BA.4 and BA.5 variants now make up 80 percent of circulating virus in the United States, according to federal data, and their greater transmissibility and immune-evading ability have raised alarms as cases and hospitalizations have increased.

Hospital admissions for covid, while far lower than they were in January, are at about 5,100 per day, a doubling since early May, according to federal health data. Many people who were infected with omicron earlier in the pandemic “really don’t have a lot of good protection against BA.4 or BA.5,” said Anthony S. Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser for the coronavirus response.

White House coronavirus coordinator Ashish Jha said the administration’s strategy to manage BA.5 relies on vaccination, antiviral treatments, testing, masking and improved indoor ventilation, measures that have worked to keep people out of the hospital and from dying.

“If we do the things that we know, that we have learned over the last two years, we can get through whatever Mother Nature throws at us in the next four, six, eight weeks ahead,” Jha said. “And also whatever Mother Nature throws at us this fall and winter.”

“Even in the face of BA.5, the tools we have continue to work,” he added.

In particular, officials urged eligible Americans, especially those 50 and older, to get a booster.

Those 5 and older should get their first booster five months after their initial vaccinations. “Do it now,” Jha said. Getting a booster shot this summer will not preclude people from getting a very specific vaccine later in the fall or winter, when vaccines targeting omicron are expected to be available, he said.

For those 50 and older, “my message is simple,” he said. “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.”

Many Americans are under-vaccinated, with only 28 percent of those 50 and older having received their second booster dose, said Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky. The risk of dying from covid-19 for people 50 and older who have received one booster dose is four times the risk for those who have had two or more booster shots, she said.

In addition, one-third of Americans live in communities where the CDC recommends people mask indoors to protect against infection, Walensky said.

The Washington Post reported Monday that administration officials are weighing a plan to allow all adults to receive a second booster shot to provide greater protection against the latest surge — a move requiring sign-off from the Food and Drug Administration as well as the CDC. Officials are concerned about waning immunity within several months of the first booster shot. Swiftly expanding access to booster shots also would enable people to receive reformulated shots that target newer virus variants when those become available later this year. In addition, officials want to use vaccine doses that are reaching their expiration dates and would otherwise be discarded.

“I know that the FDA is considering this and looking at it,” Jha said. “And I know CDC scientists are thinking about this and looking at the data as well.”

Fauci said the latest variants have a greater ability to evade virus-fighting antibodies induced by vaccination and infection. But there’s no evidence that vaccine effectiveness against severe disease is substantially reduced, he said.

Fauci also stressed the importance of keeping virus levels low. Preventing the virus from replicating and spreading gives it fewer chances to mutate.

“If the virus circulates globally and in this country, we should not let it disrupt our lives,” he said. “But we cannot deny that it is a reality that we need to deal with.”

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