US at the crossroads of the Covid pandemic as omicron subvariants emerge
dr. Anthony Fauci, White House Chief Medical Advisor and Director of NIAID, answers questions from Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) at a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on January 11, 2022 in Washington, DC
Greg Nash | Pool | Getty Images
The chief medical adviser of the White House, dr. Anthony Fauci said on Thursday that the US is at a crossroads in the Covid-19 pandemic as new sub-variants of omicron are gaining ground across the country.
Fauci said in a radio interview Thursday that the pandemic has clearly eased since last winter, but that deaths, averaging more than 2,600 a week, remain too high. At the same time, new variants of omicron throw out key tools used to protect the most vulnerable.
“We’re really at a point that could be a crossroads here. As we get into the colder months, we’re starting to see the omicron subtypes emerge,” Fauci said on the “Healthcare Talks” radio show.
Natural infection with the BA.5 subvariant or vaccination with the new boosters should provide protection against these subvariants in healthy people, Fauci said. But U.S. health officials worry that the subvariants will essentially destroy antibody treatments like Evusheld that play a key role in protecting people with severely compromised immune systems, he said.
The omicron subvariants BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 are of greatest concern. They are resistant to Evushold and are increasing every week in the US. BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 account for 27% of infections combined, while omicron BA.5 has dropped to 50%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Fauci said the U.S. must dramatically reduce the number of Covid-19 deaths, currently at about 400 a day, before the country can declare the pandemic over.
“We’re still in the middle of this — it’s not over,” Fauci said. “Four hundred deaths a day is not an acceptable level. We want it to be much lower than that.”
Fauci said hospitals could face a “negative trifecta” this winter due to new strains of Covid, as well as the resurgence of influenza and respiratory syncytial virus. The US should expect a more severe flu season based on what scientists have observed in Australia, he said. And there is already a significant increase in RSV cases in the US, he added.
“It’s going to be very confusing and could even be stressful for the hospital system, especially for the pediatric population,” Fauci said.
Although RSV looks like a mild cold to most people, the virus can be dangerous to infants and newborns. Between 58,000 and 80,000 children under the age of 5 are hospitalized with it each year, according to the CDC.
The severity of influenza varies from season to season depending on the effectiveness of the vaccine and the circulating strain. The worst season in the past decade was 2017, when the virus killed 52,000 people and hospitalized more than 700,000, according to the CDC. In the mildest season before the pandemic, the flu killed 23,000 people and hospitalized 280,000.
There is no vaccine for RSV yet, although Pfizer has a candidate that has been 81% effective in preventing severe disease in newborns. New omicron boosters as well as flu shots are widely available.
Fauci said everyone who is eligible should get the Covid boosters and the flu shot. People who face a high risk of respiratory viruses should consider wearing a mask indoors in public, Fauci said. Those who have vulnerable people in their homes should do the same, he said.
People should also consider taking rapid tests for Covid before going to indoor social gatherings where vulnerable people will be present, Fauci said.
“It’s a very good way to make sure you don’t spread infections, so get tested, wear masks where appropriate and get vaccinated,” he said.
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