Citing rise in hospitalized kids, CDC chief urges more COVID vaccination

In a briefing today, Rochelle Walenksy, MD, MPH, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said the country has the tools to keep schools open during the Omicron COVID-19 wave, but not enough eligible children are vaccinated.

"A safe and effective vaccine is now recommended for all kids 5 and older," said Walensky. "The virus is constantly throwing up curveballs, and as the virus changes, the science changes."

Walensky said only 15% of US kids ages 5 to 11 were vaccinated, while just over 50% of those 12 to 17 were fully vaccinated.  She said vaccination significantly reduces the risk of hospitalization for adolescents, with unvaccinated 12- to 17-year-olds 11 times more likely to be hospitalized than vaccinated peers.

Kids are being hospitalized at the highest rates seen in the pandemic so far, but there has not yet been a signal of increased severity in this age group, Walensky said.

The rise in child COVID-19 hospitalizations is just one marker of the nationwide surge in cases being driven largely by the Omicron (B.1.1.529) variant. Yesterday, the country reported 786,284 new COVID-19 cases, and 1,870 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 tracker. Though evidence suggests Omicron causes less severe illness, COVID-19 hospitalizations in the United States are nearing their pandemic peak, Reuters reports.

Walensky also noted that the CDC yesterday aligned its return-to-school guidelines for COVID-positive K-12 students and exposures to match the 5-day window the agency adopted for the wider public on Dec 28.

Despite the push from the CDC to keep schools open, some school districts across the country have moved to virtual learning this week. And in Chicago, leaders of Chicago Public Schools canceled classes for a third straight day as negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union over remote learning continue, the Associated Press reports.

FDA shortens booster interval for Moderna

Following the recommendations made earlier this week to shorten the booster dose interval for Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine recipients, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today said Moderna vaccine recipients can get a booster dose of vaccine 5 months, rather than 6, after the completion of their primary series.

"Vaccination is our best defense against COVID-19, including the circulating variants, and shortening the length of time between completion of a primary series and a booster dose may help reduce waning immunity. Today's action also brings consistency in the timing for administration of a booster dose among the available mRNA vaccines," said Peter Marks, MD, PhD, director of the FDA's Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research in a press release.

Yesterday the chief executive of Moderna said people are likely to need a second booster shot in the fall, with frontline workers and people 50 and older a priority, the Washington Post reports. 

Other US developments

  • The Supreme Court today heard arguments on the legality of the Biden administration's vaccine mandates for businesses with more than 100 employees and for healthcare workers. The New York Times reports that the court's conservative majority appeared skeptical about the workplace mandate, but more receptive to the mandate for healthcare workers.

  • The Biden administration today signed its first contract with a test manufacturer as part of its effort to distribute half a billion free rapid COVID-19 tests to Americans over the coming weeks, according to CNN. The administration plans to sign contracts with additional manufacturers.

  • Florida allowed up to a million COVID-19 rapid tests to expire last month, ABC News reports. The director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management said officials had tried to give the tests out before they expired, but there was no demand for them.

News reporter Chris Dall contributed to this story.

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