White House officials push boosters as BA.5 surge intensifies

Members of the White House COVID committee today urged people to get current with their COVID-19 vaccination and boosters, as a more transmissible Omicron variant expands its dominance across much of the country.

In international developments, the World Health Organization (WHO) today said its emergency committee met last week and urged the agency to keep the public health emergency of international concern designation in place.

Feds: Best booster timing is now

At a briefing today, Ashish Jha, MD, the White House committee's coordinator, said officials have been closely tracking the rapidly evolving BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants, which are the most transmissible forms of Omicron and can evade protection from earlier infection and vaccines. He and his team, however, emphasized that the vaccination can still protect against severe outcomes.

Jha said if people haven't gotten a vaccine dose in 2022, it's time to get one now. "It could save your life," he said.

He acknowledged that some people may be holding off on getting boosted, anticipating a rise in COVID activity in the fall, while others might be waiting for an Omicron-specific booster. Jha said getting boosted now won't preclude people from getting another dose in the fall or winter when the Omicron-specific version is expected to be available.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, said proportions of BA.4 and BA.5 are increasing, especially, with the two related subvariants making up about 81% of circulating viruses, up significantly from about 70% last week. Hospitalizations are slightly up, and 32% of the US population lives in a high community transmission area, a metric that triggers a CDC recommendation for indoor masking.

As virus activity expands, booster uptake has stalled. Walensky said only 28% of people who have gotten their first booster shot have received their recommended second booster dose.

Tony Fauci, MD, chief White House medical advisor and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the bottom line is for Americans not to panic and not to let the virus disrupt their lives. "But we take it seriously enough and use the tools we have to mitigate."

Officials today said they are considering allowing all adults to receive a second booster dose, according to the Washington Post. Currently, second boosters are available only to those ages 50 and older and those 12 and up who have underlying health conditions.

The White House today released a five-part strategy for managing BA.5, which includes ensuring easy access to vaccines and treatments, making high-quality masks and tests free and widely available, prioritizing immunocompromised people, urging building owners to improve ventilation, and providing clear recommendations about masking.

WHO panel considered subvariants, tracking challenges

At a WHO briefing today, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, said the emergency committee, which met on Jul 8, is concerned about interrelated challenges, including BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants driving waves of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths around the world and reduced surveillance, which is making it hard to gauge the impact of the viruses.

He also aired concerns about ineffective deployment of diagnostics, vaccines, and treatments, and a disconnect about risk perception between the scientific community, political leaders, and the public.

"New waves of the virus demonstrate again that the COVID-19 is nowhere near over," he said, adding that while the world is in a better position now, it shouldn't take the safe and effective tools for granted.  

WHO emergency committees typically meet every 3 months or more often as needed. The group last met in the middle of April.

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