Jul 13, 2022 - Health

White House begins booster push chasing BA.5 subvariant

Illustration of the White House with a large, imposing shadow of a Covid virus cell.

Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

The U.S. is facing a summertime wave of COVID-19. But some public health experts worry the Biden administration is tiptoeing around the problem.

What's happening: The White House COVID-19 team on Tuesday outlined a strategy for managing the subvariant, and officials urged eligible people to get booster shots now instead of waiting for the fall, Axios’ Oriana Gonzalez reports.

Yes, but: The administration stopped short of expanding eligibility for boosters, which are now limited to people 50 and older and immunocompromised individuals ages 12 and up.

  • Federal officials are weighing whether to broaden eligibility to all adults within the next two weeks, per the Washington Post, but want to avoid conflicts with a planned fall vaccination campaign built around vaccines updated for Omicron subvariants.
  • Some health experts question whether it’s wise to give frequent booster doses to the general population, noting possible health risks and how the strategy could mislead the public about what vaccines can and can’t do.

White House COVID-19 response coordinator Ashish Jha said Tuesday that overall, it is up to the FDA and the CDC to confirm that people who get boosted now can do so again in the fall, but that the data so far suggests that "getting vaccinated will not preclude you from getting a variant-specific vaccine later this fall or winter."

  • CDC will “continue to evaluate” the data before making a decision on whether people who get boosted now will be eligible for the vaccine-specific booster, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said.
  • Just over a third of eligible Americans have received a first booster dose.

The big picture: The rapid spread of BA.5 is forcing the issue and putting pressure on the CDC and other health agencies to clarify such basic questions as what it means to be fully vaccinated.

  • The subvariant is so transmissible — and different enough from previous versions — that even those with immunity from prior Omicron infections can quickly fall ill again.
  • 73% of the U.S. population was in a location with medium or high community spread as of July 7, according to the CDC.

Some public health experts are calling for a reboot in the administration’s response.

  • Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, is among those seeking updated CDC guidance, writing on Twitter that the agency still says two vaccine doses are “fully vaccinated” and that infected people need to isolate for five days when that’s the median length of infectiousness.
  • Dartmouth public health policy fellow Anne Sosin said strategies should include a campaign to deliver boosters to places people live and work, targeted efforts to reach high-risk groups and consistent messaging to make the case for boosting.

What we’re watching: Whether an invigorated booster campaign cuts through months of public apathy and confusion and primes the nation for potentially more COVID-19 waves this fall.

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