United States is ‘out of the pandemic phase,’ Fauci says

https://www.yahoo.com/news/united-states-pandemic-phase-fauci-094908627.html

The United States is finally “out of the pandemic phase,” the country’s top infectious disease expert said, as cases and hospitalizations are notably down and mask mandates are all but extinct.

While there are still new infections spreading throughout the country – an average of 50,000 per day as of Tuesday – the country is far from the heights of the pandemic, when daily case counts surpassed 1 million. Restrictions, too, are easing as many Americans appear to be putting the pandemic behind them. Masking requirements have been lifted across most of the country, and officials stopped enforcing a federal mask mandate in transportation settings after a judge struck down the requirement.

“We are certainly right now in this country out of the pandemic phase,” Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, said Tuesday evening on PBS’s “NewsHour.”

Fauci said the United States was no longer seeing “tens and tens and tens of thousands of hospitalizations and thousands of deaths. We are at a low level right now.”

During the pandemic’s darkest moments, many wondered when the country would officially declare itself past the nationwide disaster, which has killed nearly 1 million Americans.

Fauci’s comments are likely to fuel debate about whether this is truly the moment: New cases are on the rise in the United States, and deaths are down, though they often lag spikes in cases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday that as of the end of February, nearly 60 percent of Americans – including three out of every four children – have been infected with the coronavirus. But officials cautioned that the data did not indicate that Americans have widespread immunity against the virus because of their prior infections.

While previous infections are believed to offer some protection against serious disease for most people, health experts say the best protection against infection and serious disease or death from the coronavirus is vaccination.

The coronavirus will not be eradicated, Fauci said, but can be handled if its level of spread is kept “very low” and people are “intermittently” vaccinated, though he said he did not know how frequently. And Fauci echoed warnings from the World Health Organization and the United Nations this month that worldwide, the pandemic is far from over as vaccinations lag, particularly in developing nations.

The Biden administration, meanwhile, is appealing a ruling by a Trump-appointed federal judge that struck down the federal mask mandate on transit, including on planes, though it is unclear whether they will be successful, and likely face an American public that could be unwilling to comply again.

And in a less-than-subtle reminder that the coronavirus is still hanging around, the White House on Tuesday announced arguably the nation’s highest-profile coronavirus infection since former president Donald Trump, saying that Vice President Kamala Harris had tested positive and was asymptomatic. She was not considered in close contact to Biden, the White House said.

Coronavirus has infected majority of Americans

But officials caution that people should not presume they have protection against the virus going forward.

Before omicron, one-third of Americans had been infected with the coronavirus, but by the end of February, that rate had climbed to nearly 60 percent — including about 75 percent of kids and 60 percent of people age 18 to 49according to federal health data released Tuesday.

The data from blood tests offers the first evidence that over half the U.S. population, or 189 million people have been infected at least once since the pandemic began — double the number reflected in official case counts. Officials cautioned, however, that the data, in a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, does not indicate people have protection against the virus going forward, especially against increasingly transmissible variants.

“We continue to recommend that everyone be up to date on their vaccinations, get your primary series and booster, when eligible,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during a media briefing.

Kristie Clarke, the CDC official who authored the report, said by February, “evidence of previous COVID-19 infections substantially increased among every age group, likely reflecting the increase in cases we noted as omicron surged in this country.”

Clarke said the greatest increases took place in those with the lowest levels of vaccination, noting that older adults were more likely to be fully vaccinated.

The largest increases were in children and teenagers through age 17 — about 75 percent of them had been infected by February, based on blood samples that look at antibodies developed in response to a coronavirus infection but not in response to vaccination. That’s about 58 million children.

The blood test data suggests 189 million Americans had covid-19 by end of February, well over double the 80 million cases shown by The Washington Post case tracker, which is based on state data of confirmed infections. Clarke said that’s because the blood tests captures asymptomatic cases and others that were never confirmed on coronavirus tests.

With the omicron surge, officials had expected there would be more infections. “But I didn’t expect the increase to be quite this much,” Clarke added.

Separately, CDC is about to publish another study that estimates three infections for every reported case, she said.

How do you convince a skeptical public to get a fourth shot?

The expected green light for a second coronavirus booster shot poses a challenge to the Biden administration, which will need to work overtime to convince a public that has largely decided to move on from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both Pfizer and Moderna have filed for emergency use authorization with the Food and Drug Administration for a fourth dose of their respective vaccines, citing evidence that protection from the third shot has decreased enough to warrant a fourth dose.

Yet the nation’s vaccination and booster rates have dropped to record lows, just as experts and officials are bracing for the possibility of another wave of infections from the BA.2 subvariant of omicron.

The BA.2 version of omicron is much more transmissible than the original variant. Combined with relaxed precautions like indoor masking and waning immunity among those who have not received a vaccine booster, cases have risen sharply in Europe in the past few weeks, and the U.S. could follow shortly. 

The omicron subvariant is responsible for about 35 percent of all cases in the country. In some regions though, like the northeast, it is responsible for the majority of infections.

Federal health officials are reportedly poised to authorize a fourth dose of coronavirus vaccine for adults age 50 and older as soon as this week. A fourth shot is already authorized for the immunocompromised.

But the issues that plagued the administration during the first booster campaign loom large, and officials are likely eager to avoid the same pitfalls. 

Chaotic and at times disparate messages from administration health officials culminated in a complicated set of recommendations about who should be getting booster shots, and why, which experts said helped depress enthusiasm. 

“I think that some of the low uptake of boosters, especially amongst people who would benefit, the high risk population, is because that message has been diluted,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

But the underlying disagreement about the goal of booster shots has not changed. While there’s widespread agreement that older Americans are much more at risk for severe outcomes, it’s still not clear if younger people will benefit from an additional dose. 

Much of the debate has centered on whether the goal is to prevent people from being hospitalized with COVID-19 or whether the goal is to prevent them from getting sick at all, even if it is milder. 

Anthony Fauci, White House chief medical advisor and the nation’s top infectious disease doctor, said regulators are trying to determine how low protection against hospitalization needs to drop before a booster is warranted.

“So the real open question that we don’t know definitively the answer to, is how long is the durability of protection against severe disease going to last even when the protection against infection diminishes substantially,” Fauci said during a Washington Post event last week. 

“For example, we know that when you get down to a rather low level 30, 40 or so percent of protection against infection, you still have, when you look at hospitalization, a high degree [of protection],” Fauci said.

President Biden last summer promised widespread boosters for all Americans by the end of September, well before the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had examined the evidence. 

While officials were careful to say the booster program was contingent on the FDA and CDC giving the green light, scientists inside and outside the government argued there wasn’t enough evidence showing protection against severe illness and hospitalization dropped to levels that warranted a booster.

The CDC initially decided against recommending broad authorization, and instead recommended a booster shot for people over the age of 65, as well as anyone who was at “high risk” of exposure to the virus in the workplace. 

The agency eventually decided to make everyone eligible, but by then much of the damage had been done. Vaccinated Americans have largely shown they are not interested in getting a booster.

According to current CDC data, less than 45 percent of all adults have received a booster shot, but the number rises to about 67 percent of adults age 65 and older. 

Adalja said it makes sense to be proactive and have a plan to get additional booster shots to the older group. But he said the decisions should be left to the scientists, and the health agencies should make decisions independent of the White House. 

Keep the politicians out of it,” Adalja said. “The miscommunications occurred because they made boosters a political issue, not a scientific issue.”

But even if there is a targeted recommendation, a stalled funding request in Congress further complicates matters. The U.S government does not have enough doses on hand to vaccinate everyone who would be eligible for another booster.

The White House says it needs tens of billions of dollars in COVID response funding, which is tied up due to political disagreements. Administration officials say they don’t have enough doses on hand to cover anyone other than the immunocompromised and people aged 65 and older.

But an independent analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation found the government only has enough vaccine supplies to cover 70 percent of the 65 and older group. 

What is the new COVID-19 variant BA.2, and will it cause another wave of infections in the US?

A new omicron subvariant of the virus that causes COVID-19, BA.2, is quickly becoming the predominant source of infections amid rising cases around the world. Immunologists Prakash Nagarkatti and Mitzi Nagarkatti of the University of South Carolina explain what makes it different from previous variants, whether there will be another surge in the U.S. and how best to protect yourself.

What is BA.2, and how is it related to omicron?

BA.2 is the latest subvariant of omicron, the dominant strain of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. While the origin of BA.2 is still unclear, it has quickly become the dominant strain in many countries, including India, Denmark and South Africa. It is continuing to spread in Europe, Asia and many parts of the world.

The omicron variant, officially known as B.1.1.529, of SARS-CoV-2 has three main subvariants in its lineage: BA.1, BA.2 and BA.3. The earliest omicron subvariant to be detected, BA.1, was first reported in November 2021 in South Africa. While scientists believe that all the subvariants may have emerged around the same time, BA.1 was predominantly responsible for the winter surge of infections in the Northern Hemisphere in 2021.

The first omicron subvariant, BA.1, is unique in the number of alterations it has compared to the original version of the virus – it has over 30 mutations in the spike protein that helps it enter cells. Spike protein mutations are of high concern to scientists and public health officials because they affect how infectious a particular variant is and whether it is able to escape the protective antibodies that the body produces after vaccination or a prior COVID-19 infection.

BA.2 has eight unique mutations not found in BA.1, and lacks 13 mutations that BA.1 does have. BA.2 does, however, share around 30 mutations with BA.1. Because of its relative genetic similarity, it is considered a subvariant of omicron as opposed to a completely new variant.

Why is it called a ‘stealth’ variant?

Some scientists have called BA.2 a “stealth” variant because, unlike the BA.1 variant, it lacks a particular genetic signature that distinguishes it from the delta variant.

While standard PCR tests are still able to detect the BA.2 variant, they might not be able to tell it apart from the delta variant.

Is it more infectious and lethal than other variants?

BA.2 is considered to be more transmissible but not more virulant than BA.1. This means that while BA.2 can spread faster than BA.1, it might not make people sicker.

It is worth noting that while BA.1 has dominated case numbers around the world, it causes less severe disease compared to the delta variant. Recent studies from the U.K. and Denmark suggest that BA.2 may pose a similar risk of hospitalization as BA.1.

Does previous infection with BA.1 provide protection against BA.2?

Yes! A recent study suggested that people previously infected with the original BA.1 subvariant have robust protection against BA.2.

Because BA.1 caused widespread infections across the world, it is likely that a significant percentage of the population has protective immunity against BA.2. This is why some scientists predict that BA.2 will be less likely to cause another major wave

However, while the natural immunity gained after COVID-19 infection may provide strong protection against reinfection from earlier variants, it weakens against omicron.

How effective are vaccines against BA.2?

recent preliminary study that has not yet been peer reviewed of over 1 million individuals in Qatar suggests that two doses of either the Pfizer–BioNTech or Moderna COVID-19 vaccines protect against symptomatic infection from BA.1 and BA.2 for several months before waning to around 10%. A booster shot, however, was able to elevate protection again close to original levels.

Importantly, both vaccines were 70% to 80% effective at preventing hospitalization or death, and this effectiveness increased to over 90% after a booster dose.

How worried does the US need to be about BA.2?

The rise in BA.2 in certain parts of the world is most likely due to a combination of its higher transmissibility, people’s waning immunity and relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions.

CDC data suggests that BA.2 cases are rising steadily, making up 23% of all cases in the U.S. as of early March. Scientists are still debating whether BA.2 will cause another surge in the U.S.

Though there may be an uptick of BA.2 infections in the coming months, protective immunity from vaccination or previous infection provides defense against severe disease. This may make it less likely that BA.2 will cause a significant increase in hospitalization and deaths. The U.S., however, lags behind other countries when it comes to vaccination, and falls even further behind on boosters.

Whether there will be another devastating surge depends on how many people are vaccinated or have been previously infected with BA.1. It’s safer to generate immunity from a vaccine, however, than from getting an infection. Getting vaccinated and boosted and taking precautions like wearing an N95 mask and social distancing are the best ways to protect yourself from BA.2 and other variants.

Fauci says COVID-19 cases will likely increase soon, though not necessarily hospitalizations

https://www.yahoo.com/gma/fauci-says-covid-19-cases-100200293.html

Over the next few weeks, the U.S. should expect an increase in cases from the BA.2 variant, Dr. Anthony Fauci told ABC News, but it may not lead to as severe a surge in hospitalizations or deaths.

“I would not be surprised if in the next few weeks we see somewhat of either a flattening of our diminution or maybe even an increase,” Fauci told ABC News’ Brad Mielke on the podcast “Start Here.”

His prediction is based on conversations with colleagues in the U.K., which is currently seeing a “blip” in cases, Fauci said. The pandemic trajectory in the U.S. has often followed the U.K. by about three weeks.

However, he added, “Their intensive care bed usage is not going up, which means they’re not seeing a blip up of severe disease.”

The BA.2 variant, a more transmissible strain of omicron, now represents around 23% of all cases in the U.S., according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And while Fauci predicted that the BA.2 variant will eventually overtake omicron as the most dominant variant, it’s not yet clear how much of a problem that will be.

“Whether or not that is going to lead to another surge, a mini surge or maybe even a moderate surge, is very unclear because there are a lot of other things that are going on right now,” Fauci said.

Similar to the U.K., much of the U.S. has recently relaxed mitigation efforts like mask mandates and requirements for proof of vaccination. At the same time, people who were vaccinated over six months ago and still haven’t gotten a booster shot, which is about half of vaccinated Americans, according to the CDC, are facing continuously waning immunity.

It’s also not yet clear how long immunity from prior infection will last, Fauci said.

Taken together, it’s why Fauci and other experts, including CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, have increasingly predicted that elderly people will need a second booster shot soon. The Food and Drug Administration began reviewing data from Pfizer on the safety and efficacy this week, and its advisory panel will debate if and when the additional booster shot is necessary in the coming weeks.

At the same time, Fauci urged Americans who haven’t yet gotten their first booster, which would be their third shot in a Pfizer or Moderna series, to do so.

A resurgence of cases could also mean Americans are asked to wear masks again, which Fauci predicted would be an uphill battle.

“From what I know about human nature, which I think is pretty much a lot, people are kind of done with COVID,” Fauci said.

Still, he defended the CDC decision to loosen its mask recommendations earlier this month by shifting to a strategy that focused more on severe outcomes, like hospitalizations and deaths, rather than on daily case spread.

“You can go ahead and continue to tiptoe towards normality, which is what we’re doing, but at the same time, be aware that you may have to reverse,” Fauci said.

And if the U.S. does continue to make its way back toward normal times, Fauci himself has a personal choice to consider. At 81 years old, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases is “certainly” thinking about retirement.

“I have said that I would stay in what I’m doing until we get out of the pandemic phase and I think we might be there already, if we can stay in this,” Fauci said, referring to the falling cases and hospitalizations in the U.S.

“I can’t stay at this job forever. Unless my staff is gonna find me slumped over my desk one day. I’d rather not do that,” he said, laughing.

While he doesn’t currently have retirement plans, the recent hire of Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, to be White House coronavirus coordinator, could alleviate some of his pandemic response duties and give him a window.

But Fauci, who has dedicated his career to public health, primarily studying HIV and AIDS, and worked under seven U.S. presidents, said he doesn’t have any particular hobbies waiting for him in retirement.

“I, unfortunately, am somewhat of a unidimensional physician, scientist, public health person. When I do decide I’m going to step down, whenever that is, I’m going to have to figure out what it is I’m going to do,” he said.

“I’d love to spend more time with my wife and family. That would really be good.”

A covid surge in Western Europe has U.S. bracing for another wave

https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2022/03/16/covid-ba2-omicron-surge/?utm_campaign=wp_post_most&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&wpisrc=nl_most&carta-url=https%3A%2F%2Fs2.washingtonpost.com%2Fcar-ln-tr%2F36559b9%2F62320b1e9d2fda34e7d4e992%2F5b63a342ade4e2779550ca1b%2F9%2F73%2F62320b1e9d2fda34e7d4e992

A surge in coronavirus infections in Western Europe has experts and health authorities on alert for another wave of the pandemic in the United States, even as most of the country has done away with restrictions after a sharp decline in cases.

Infectious-disease experts are closely watching the subvariant of omicron known as BA.2, which appears to be more transmissible than the original strain, BA.1, and is fueling the outbreak overseas.

Germany, a nation of 83 million people, saw more than 250,000 new cases and 249 deaths Friday, when Health Minister Karl Lauterbach called the nation’s situation “critical.” The country is allowing most coronavirus restrictions to end Sunday, despite the increase. The United Kingdom had a seven-day average of 65,894 cases and 79 deaths as of Sunday, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Research Center. The Netherlands, home to fewer than 18 million people, was averaging more than 60,000 cases the same day.

In all, about a dozen nations are seeing spikes in coronavirus infections caused by BA.2, a cousin of the BA.1 form of the virus that tore through the United States over the past three months.

In the past two years, a widespread outbreak like the one now being seen in Europe has been followed by a similar surge in the United States some weeks later. Many, but not all, experts interviewed for this story predicted that is likely to happen. China and Hong Kong, on the other hand, are experiencing rapid and severe outbreaks, but the strict “zero covid” policies they have enforced make them less similar to the United States than Western Europe.

A number of variables — including relaxed precautions against viral transmission, vaccination rates, the availability of antiviral medications and natural immunity acquired by previous infection — may affect the course of any surge in the United States, experts said.

Most importantly, it is unclear at this point how many people will become severely ill, stressing hospitals and the health-care system as BA.1 did.

Another surge also may test the public’s appetite for returning to widespread mask-wearing, mandates and other measures that many have eagerly abandoned as the latest surge fades and spring approaches, experts said.

“It’s picking up steam. It’s across at least 12 countries … from Finland to Greece,” said Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in San Diego, who recently posted charts of the outbreak on Twitter. “There’s no question there’s a significant wave there.”

Topol noted that hospitalizations for covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, are rising in some places as well, despite the superior vaccination rates of many Western European countries.

At a briefing Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said about 35,000 cases of BA.2 have been reported in the United States to date. But she offered confidence that “the tools we have — including mRNA vaccines, therapeutics and tests — are all effective tools against the virus. And we know because it’s been in the country.”

Kristen Nordlund, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an email Tuesday that “although the BA.2 variant has increased in the United States over the past several weeks, it is not the dominant variant, and we are not seeing an increase in the severity of disease.”

The seven-day average of cases in the United States fell 17.9 percent in the past week, according to data tracked by The Washington Post, while the number of deaths dropped 17.2 percent and hospitalizations declined 23.2 percent.

Predicting the future course of the virus has proved difficult throughout the pandemic, and the current circumstances in Europe elicited a range of opinions from people who have closely tracked the pathogen and the disease it causes.

In the United States, just 65.3 percent of the population, 216.8 million people, are fully vaccinated, and only 96.1 million have received a booster shot, according to data tracked by The Post. In Germany, nearly 76 percent are fully vaccinated, according to the Johns Hopkins data, and the United Kingdom has fully vaccinated 73.6 percent.

That lower vaccination rate is very likely to matter as BA.2 spreads further in the United States, especially in regions where it is significantly lower than the national rate, several experts said. And even for people who are fully vaccinated and have received a booster shot, research data is showing that immunity to the virus fades over time. Vaccine-makers Pfizer and BioNTech asked the Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday for emergency authorization to offer a fourth shot to people 65 and older.

Any place you have relatively lower vaccination rates, especially among the elderly, is where you’re going to see a bump in hospitalizations and deaths from this,” said Céline Gounder, an infectious-diseases physician and editor at large for public health at Kaiser Health News.

Similarly, as the public sheds masks — every state has dropped its mask mandate or announced plans to do so — another layer of protection is disappearing, several people tracking the situation said.

“Why wouldn’t it come here? Are we vaccinated enough? I don’t know,” said Kimberly Prather, a professor of atmospheric chemistry and an expert on aerosol transmission at the University of California at San Diego.

“So I’m wearing my mask still. … I am the only person indoors, and people look at me funny, and I don’t care.”

Yet BA.2 appears to be spreading more slowly in the United States than it has overseas, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Debbie Dowell, chief medical officer for the CDC’s covid-19 response, said in a briefing Saturday for clinicians sponsored by the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

“The speculation I’ve seen is that it may extend the curve going down, case rates from omicron, but is unlikely to cause another surge that we saw initially with omicron,” Dowell said.

One reason for that may be the immunity that millions of people acquired recently when they were infected with the BA.1 variant, which generally caused less-severe illness than previous variants. Yet no one really knows whether infection with BA.1 offers protection from BA.2.

“That’s the question,” said Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. “Better yet, how long does it provide protection?

Topol said the United States needs to improve its vaccination and booster rates immediately to protect more of the population against any coming surge.

“We have got to get the United States protected better. We have an abundance of these shots. We have to get them into people,” he said.

Biden administration officials said that whatever the further spread of BA.2 brings to the United States, the next critical step is to provide the $15.6 billion in emergency funding that Congress stripped from a deal to fund the government last week. That money was slated to pay for coronavirus tests, more vaccines and antiviral medications.

“That means that some programs, if we don’t get funding, could abruptly end or need to be pared back, Psaki said at Monday’s briefing. “And that could impact how we are able to respond to any variant.”

4 possible scenarios for the pandemic’s next act

As COVID-19 cases fall and hospitals tiptoe out from yet another surge, the nation is left collectively asking one major question: What comes next?

By now, health experts have made it clear COVID-19 will always be around in some capacity but have stressed uncertainty about the potential scope and severity of future surges.

While difficult to predict what the pandemic’s next act could look like, several potential scenarios have emerged in recent months. 

Below are four possible paths the pandemic could take in the future, as outlined by physicians, epidemiologists and global health officials: 

1. Delta rebound. Delta has seemingly fallen out of the collective pandemic lingo amid omicron’s dominance in recent months, though there is still a chance delta — thought to be the deadliest strain thus far — makes a comeback. 

In a Jan. 24 op-ed for The Washington Post, Ashish Jha, MD, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health in Providence, R.I., said “It is possible, though unlikely, that the delta variant returns and co-circulates with omicron in different populations, contributing to ongoing infections and hospitalizations.” 

It’s important to note that delta is still dominant in some parts of the world, health experts told The Atlantic, adding that while unlikely, there is a chance it could morph into something that catches up with omicron, allowing the two to tag-team — a dangerous combination given delta’s brutality and omicron’s transmissibility. 

2. COVID-19 may become a seasonal virus. Dr. Jha said this scenario is likely, whether delta makes a comeback or not. 

“That means we are likely to see surges in Southern states this summer (as people there spend more time indoors) and in Northern states next fall and winter as the weather turns cold again,” he wrote in a Jan. 24 op-ed for The Washington Post. 

Emerging evidence suggests COVID-19 may be a seasonal disease, though the research is still preliminary. A July 2021 study from the University of Pittsburgh projected a seasonal COVID-19 pattern in North America with three repeating waves: one starting in New England in the spring, the second starting in the South in the summer, and the third kicking off in the Dakotas in the fall. Based on these findings, researchers predicted the U.S. would see a summer 2021 wave in the South and a fall 2021 wave in North-Central states, which is similar to what happened with the delta and omicron surges. As of November 2021, the study had not been peer reviewed. 

3. A new variant emerges. If there’s one thing on this list that’s near certain, it’s that there will be new variants in the future. Global health officials have said they expect future variants to be even more transmissible than omicron.

“Omicron will not be the last variant that you will hear us talking about,” Maria Van Kerkhove, PhD, the World Health Organization’s technical lead on COVID-19, said Jan. 25. “The next variant of concern will be more fit, and what we mean by that is it will be more transmissible, because it will have to overtake what is currently circulating.” 

Health officials aren’t so much concerned about the emergence of new variants themselves but whether they will cause more or less disease severity. WHO officials have warned against assuming the virus will become milder as it continues to mutate.

“There is no guarantee of that,” Dr. Van Kerkhove said. “We hope that is the case, but there is no guarantee of that and we can’t bank on it,” she added, emphasizing the importance of interventions such as ramping up global vaccination coverage to prevent the emergence of new variants. 

Health experts are also concerned white-tailed deer may become a reservoir for the virus to mutate and spread to other animals or back to humans in the form of a new variant. 

“This is a top concern right now for the United States,” said Casey Barton Behravesh, who directs the CDC’s One Health Office, which focuses on connections among human, animal and environmental health. “If deer were to become established as a North American wildlife reservoir — and we do think they’re at risk of that — there are real concerns for the health of other wildlife species, livestock, pets and even people,” she told The New York Times. 

Preliminary findings recently found white-tailed deer on New York’s Staten Island infected with omicron, the first time the strain has been detected in wild animals in the U.S. Scientists are still exploring a number of questions regarding the virus’s spread among deer, such as how they contract the virus, how the pathogen might mutate inside the host, and whether deer could pass the virus back to humans.

4. The omicron subvariant may spread globally, prolonging the current COVID-19 surge in some parts of the world. 

Research shows BA.2 is more transmissible than BA.1, the original omicron strain, though there is no evidence to suggest the subvariant causes more severe illness. The WHO said it expects cases of the omicron subvariant to increase globally due to its growth advantage over BA.1. 

“We expect to see BA.2 increasing in detection around the world,” Dr. Kerkhove said during a Feb. 8 media briefing. 

In late January, Nathan Grubaugh, PhD, an epidemiologist at the Yale University School of Public Health in New Haven, Conn., told The New York Times he was “fairly certain” the subvariant will become dominant in the U.S. but is unclear on “what that would mean for the pandemic.”

The BA.2 variant could spur a new surge, but it’s more likely that U.S. cases will continue to decrease, according to Dr. Grubaugh. If anything, the variant may simply slow the decline.  

Overall, most experts told the Times that BA.2’s presence would not significantly alter the course of the pandemic, and so far, data backs this up. COVID-19 cases have been falling nationwide since peaking in mid-January, and modeling from Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Clinic predicts this trend will continue over the next 14 days.

The weekly number of BA.2 sequences identified in the U.S. has also fallen since mid-January, according to a Feb. 11 U.K. Health Security Agency’s report. The U.S. confirmed 191 BA.2 sequences in the week of Jan. 17, which fell to 116 in the week of Jan. 24. In the week of Jan. 31, just four sequences were confirmed, according to supplemental data from the report. 

How likely is COVID-19 hospitalization for vaccinated Americans?

CDC Charts Show Hospitalization Rates for Unvaxxed, 2 Doses, 3 Doses

Data from federal, state, and local health agencies show COVID-19 case, hospitalization, and death rates are much lower for vaccinated Americans than they are for the unvaccinated.

The first week of December 2021, when Omicron was first detected in the US, unvaccinated adults were nearly 25 times more likely to be hospitalized than vaccinated adults. While Omicron caused a big spike in COVID-19 cases, vaccinated people continued to be less likely to be hospitalized than the unvaccinated.

In King County, Wash., which includes Seattle, unvaccinated people were 13 times more likely to be hospitalized for coronavirus since December than people who were fully vaccinated.

New York City was one of the first areas in the US to get hit with Omicron. During the week ending January 15, 0.6% of all unvaccinated people were hospitalized with COVID-19 , compared with 0.02% of all vaccinated people.

These two areas have some of the most up-to-date data that illustrates the differences in susceptibility and severity of coronavirus based on vaccination status. But other state and local health agencies as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also provide data that shows vaccine effectiveness.

As of January 26, 210 million Americans, or 64% of the population, were considered fully vaccinated after completing the initial series of COVID-19 shots. Twenty-six percent of Americans had received a booster dose.

National data isn’t as recent but shows lower hospitalization risks among the boosted.

CDC data compiled from hospitals in 12 states shows that, in the week before Christmas, unvaccinated people ages 50 to 64 were 32 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than people in the age range who got a booster shot. They were eight times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than fully vaccinated people without a booster.

Unvaccinated people 65 and older were about 50 times more likely to be hospitalized than those who were fully vaccinated and received a booster.

More recent data from across the country suggests vaccinated people continue to experience lower hospitalization rates.

Georgia and North Dakota are two states publishing recent data on hospitalizations for people who have received a booster shot.

These comparisons do not account for age, so they don’t directly show the effectiveness of boosters. But the available data suggests vaccinated people are hospitalized at lower rates than unvaccinated people, just like before the Omicron wave.

In the first week of December, the combination of Georgia’s unvaccinated population and those receiving only one dose of the vaccine were 10 times more likely to be in a hospital with COVID-19 than the boosted population.

Georgia counts anyone in a hospital who tests positive for COVID-19 as a COVID-19 hospitalization.

Hospitalization rates in the state increased for everyone regardless of vaccination status during the Omicron wave. But the gap between the boosted population and the unvaccinated or partially vaccinated remained.

As of mid-January, the weekly hospitalization rate for Georgia’s booster group was a third of the rate for the combined unvaccinated and not fully vaccinated population. As of January 31, 48% of Georgians were not fully vaccinated, while 17% had received a booster.

During the same period in North Dakota, unvaccinated and partially vaccinated people were about twice as likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 compared with the vaccinated. The hospitalization gap was three times greater for those with boosters.

Several other states published data on hospitalizations through mid-January. They all show vaccinated Americans at much lower risk.

Why is America’s Covid-19 death rate so high?

Death Rates In The U.S. During Pandemic Far Higher Than Other Countries :  Shots - Health News : NPR

Covid-19 death rates in the United States are “eye-wateringly” high compared with other wealthy nations—a problem that several health experts say underscores the shortfalls of the country’s pandemic response.

U.S. Covid-19 death rates exceed those of other wealthy nations

According to CDC data, over 880,000 Americans have died from Covid-19 since the beginning of the pandemic—a death toll greater than that of any other country. And during the current omicron wave, Covid-19 deaths are now greater than the peak number seen during the delta wave and more than two-thirds as high as record numbers seen last winter before vaccines were available, the New York Times reports.

Moreover, since Dec. 1, when omicron was first detected in the United States, the proportion of Americans who have died from Covid-19 has been at least 63% higher than other large, wealthy countries, including Britain, Canada, France, and Germany, according to a Times analysis of mortality figures.

Currently, the daily Covid-19 death rate in the United States is nearly double that of Britain and four times that of Germany. The only large European countries to surpass the United States’ Covid-19 death rates have been the Czech Republic, Greece, Poland, Russian, and Ukraine—all of which are less wealthy nations where the most effective treatments may be limited.

“Death rates are so high in the States—eye-wateringly high,” said Devi Sridhar, head of the global public health program at the University of Edinburgh. “The United States is lagging.”

Similarly, Joseph Dieleman, an associate professor at the University of Washington, said the United States “stands out” with its high Covid-19 death rate. “There’s been more loss than anyone wanted or anticipated,” he said. 

Vaccination shortfalls plague the U.S.

Lagging Covid-19 vaccination rates among Americans likely contributed to the country’s outsized death toll compared with other nations, several health experts said.

Currently, around 64% of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated. However, several peer countries, including Australia (80%), Canada (80%), and France (77%), have achieved higher vaccination rates.

Unvaccinated people make up the majority of hospitalized Covid-19 patients, according to the Times, but lagging vaccination and booster rates among vulnerable groups, such as older Americans, has also led to increased hospitalizations.

Around 12% of Americans ages 65 and older are not fully vaccinated, and among those who are fully vaccinated, 43% still have not received a booster shot, leaving them with waning immunity against the omicron variant. In comparison, only 4% of Britons ages 65 and older are not fully vaccinated, and only 9% have not had a booster shot.

“It’s not just vaccination—it’s the recency of vaccines, it’s whether or not people have been boosted, and also whether or not people have been infected in the past,” said Lauren Ancel Meyers, director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Covid-19 modeling consortium.

Similarly, former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said that the United States‘ lagging vaccination rates compared to the U.K.’s, particularly for boosters, may be due to “protracted wrangling” that “may have sowed confusion, sapping consumer interest.”

How the U.S. could fare in future Covid-19 waves

According to some scientists, the gap between the United States and other wealthy nations may soon begin to narrow. Although U.S. vaccination rates have been slow, the delta and omicron waves have infected so many people that overall immunity against the coronavirus has increased—which could potentially help blunt the effect of future waves.

“We’ve finally started getting to a stage where most of the population has been exposed either to a vaccine or the virus multiple times by now,” said David Dowdy, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “I think we’re now likely to start seeing [American and European Covid-19 death rates] be more synchronized going forward.”

However, other experts noted that the United States has other disadvantages that could make future Covid-19 waves difficult. For example, many Americans have chronic health problems, such as diabetes and obesity, that increase the risk of severe Covid-19 outcomes.

Overall, health experts said the impact of future Covid-19 waves will depend on what new variants emerge, as well as what level of death people decide is tolerable.

“We’ve normalized a very high death toll in the U.S.,” said Anne Sosin, who studies health equity at Dartmouth University. “If we want to declare the end of the pandemic right now, what we’re doing is normalizing a very high rate of death.”