By CARLA K. JOHNSON, AP Medical Writer
With new omicron variants driving up hospital admissions and COVID-19 deaths again in recent weeks, states and cities are rethinking their responses and the White House is stepping up efforts to alert the public.
Some experts said the warnings are too few, too late.
The highly transmissible BA.5 variant now accounts for 65% of cases, and its cousin BA.4 contributes another 16%. The variants have shown a remarkable ability to evade the protection offered by infection and vaccination.
“The time is past when the warning could have been issued,” said Dr. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, who called BA.5 “the worst variant yet.”
Global trends for the two mutants have been evident for weeks, experts said: They are rapidly outcompeting older variants and increasing cases wherever they appear. However, Americans have taken off their masks and returned to traveling and social gatherings. And they have largely ignored booster shots, which protect against the worst outcomes of COVID-19. Courts have blocked federal mask and vaccine mandates, tying the hands of US officials.
“We learn a lot from how the virus acts in other places and we should apply the knowledge here,” said Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle.
White House COVID-19 coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha appeared on morning television Wednesday urging booster shots and renewed vigilance. However, Mokdad said federal health officials need to push harder on indoor masks, early detection and timely antiviral treatment.
“They’re not doing all they can,” Mokdad said.
The administration’s challenge, in the White House’s view, is not its message, but people’s willingness to listen to it, given pandemic fatigue and the politicization of the response to the virus.
For months, the White House has encouraged Americans to make use of free or cheap at-home rapid tests for the virus, as well as the free and effective antiviral treatment Paxlovid that protects against serious illness and death. On Tuesday, the White House response team called on all adults over 50 to urgently get a booster if they haven’t already this year, discouraging people from waiting for the next generation of vaccines that it is expected for the fall when they can roll up their sleeves and get some protection now.
Los Angeles County, the nation’s largest by population, faces a return to a broad indoor mask-wearing mandate if current trends in hospital admissions continue, Health Director Barbara Ferrer told reporters Tuesday. county supervisors.
“I recognize that when we go back to universal indoor masking to reduce high spread, for many this will feel like a step backwards,” Ferrer said. But she stressed that requiring masks “helps us reduce risk.”
Los Angeles County has long required masks in some indoor spaces, including health care facilities, Metro trains and buses, airports, jails and homeless shelters. A universal mandate would expand the requirement to all indoor public spaces, including shared offices, manufacturing facilities, warehouses, retail stores, restaurants and bars, theaters, and schools.
Sharon Fayette took off her mask the moment she stepped out of a Lyft ride in Los Angeles and groaned when she was informed that another universal mask requirement could be coming. “Oh man, when will it end?” she wondered about the pandemic.
Fayette said she was exhausted by the changing regulations and doubted most residents would follow another mandate. “I just think people are over it, all the rules,” she said.
The nation’s brief lull in COVID deaths has been reversed. Last month, daily deaths were falling, although they never reached last year’s low, and now deaths are rising again.
The seven-day average of daily deaths in the US rose 26% in the last two weeks to 489 on July 12.
The coronavirus isn’t killing as many as it did last fall and winter, and experts don’t expect death to reach those levels again any time soon. But hundreds of daily deaths from a summer respiratory illness would normally be staggering, said Andrew Noymer, a professor of public health at the University of California, Irvine. He noted that in Orange County, California, 46 people died of COVID-19 in June.
“That would be all hands on deck,” Noymer said. “People would say, ‘There’s a crazy new flu killing people in June.'”
Instead, simple and proven precautions are not being taken. Vaccines, including booster shots for those eligible, reduce the risk of hospitalization and death, even against the most recent variants. But less than half of all eligible American adults have received a single booster shot, and only 1 in 4 Americans age 50 and older who are eligible for a second booster shot have received one.
“This has been a failed booster campaign,” Topol said, noting that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still uses the term “fully vaccinated” for people with two injections from Moderna or Pfizer. “They haven’t realized that two shots is totally inappropriate,” she said.
Noymer said that if he were in charge of the nation’s response to COVID, he would open up to the American people in an effort to get their attention in this third year of the pandemic. I would tell Americans to take this seriously, wear masks indoors, and “until we get better vaccines, there will be a new normal for a disease that kills more than 100,000 Americans a year and affects life expectancy.”
That message probably wouldn’t fly for political reasons, Noymer acknowledged.
It also might not work for people who are tired of taking precautions after more than two years of the pandemic. Valerie Walker of New Hope, Pennsylvania, is aware of the latest surge, but she’s not alarmed.
“I was definitely worried back then,” she said of the early days of the pandemic, with images of body bags on the nightly news. “Now there is fatigue, things were improving and there was a vaccine. So I would say on a scale of one to 10, it’s probably a four.”
Even with two friends who are now sick with the virus and her husband recently recovered, Walker says she has bigger problems.
“Sometimes when I think about it, I still wear a mask when I walk into a store, but honestly, it’s not a daily thought for me,” she said.
Associated Press writers Christopher Weber in Los Angeles, Bobby Caina Calvan in New York and Zeke Miller in Washington contributed.
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