The US is having a COVID-19 déjà vu moment. ICYMI, BA.5 is the new dominant subvariant in the US — accounting for at least 65% of cases. With the daily average of new cases topping 126,000 — and hospitalizations approaching 6,000 a day. Health officials are raising concerns about the surge. Especially since BA.5 is more transmissible than other variants. And is more likely to “escape immunity.” Meaning: You could still be at risk if you’ve already had COVID-19 or are vaxxed.
Now, as many put the pandemic in the rearview mirror, health experts are sounding the alarm on BA.5. Including Dr. Anthony Fauci, who’s issuing a reality check: the pandemic is “alive and well.” Here’s what he told theSkimm about your best lines of defense — including boosters, masks, and testing.
Psst: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Research has shown that — like other subvariants — BA.5 can evade immunity and reinfect people. Why is it so crucial to get boosted?
“Not only [with] BA.5, but virtually any of the subvariants of Omicron, there's a substantial waning of immunity, certainly against infection and — to some extent — against severe disease. When you compare unboosted vaccinated people with boosted vaccinated people, there really is a significant difference.
“You should get a booster. If you want to be optimally protected, the data [is] very clear that [all] the Omicron subvariants need that extra lift that you get from a boost. That's the reason why we're very enthusiastic and encouraging people: If you are due for your booster, please get your booster shot.”
Should people get a booster shot now or wait until there’s an Omicron-specific booster available?
“If you are talking about your first boost, you don't wanna wait for anything. You need that boost right now. [When it comes to the second booster,] if you are a person who is younger than 50 years old and is in a higher risk category — you have an underlying condition or you're living at home with someone who is compromised in their immune response and you want to doubly protect yourself — you should not wait. You should get that boost now.”
Are there any plans to extend the second booster to all American adults?
“[That’s] very actively being discussed right now. I don't want to give a date, but I think it's gonna be pretty soon.”
How else can Americans stay safe in this new reality of variants and subvariants without disrupting their lives?
“[You do] not need to disrupt your life. To prevent you from getting infected and to protect your family, loved ones, and those around you, [you can do] simple mask wearing in an indoor congregate setting when you are living in a zone that has a high level of infection. There is really nothing difficult about doing that. You could still go about your life. You could still enjoy the outdoors. We're only talking about indoor congregate settings — when you have people around you and you don't have any idea what their status is.
“Also you can test. For example, if you're gonna have people come over, it's very easy to suggest and encourage people to get one of those rapid antigen tests before they come over. Or, if you are gonna go someplace to make sure that you are negative so that you don't spread it. If you have a family member who is compromised by age or [has an] underlying condition, you might want to protect them by testing yourself intermittently.
“So, there's vaccination, testing, [and] wearing a mask at appropriate times. All of those things can be done without significantly disrupting anything in your life.”
We're in the summer travel season. Would the Biden admin consider reimposing the testing mandate for people flying to the US?
“No. I think we're gonna try as best as we can to stay away from mandates. It's kind of radioactive. You mention the [word] mandate and people [start] pushing back. It's so much better to get people to understand that, particularly in crowded airports, that's such an easy place for there to be spread.
“So, you don't mandate, [but] you encourage people to wear a mask when they travel. Now, you see on planes [that] very few people have masks on [and] at airports. And people should not feel embarrassed about putting a mask on when they're surrounded by people who are not wearing masks. Don't worry about that. Take care of your own health and indirectly the health of your family and your loved ones.”
In the past, the CDC has made back-and-forth changes to its COVID-19 guidelines. Will there be changes to the mask and isolation periods as a result of BA.5?
“I don't think they're gonna change anything because of BA.5. They have rather consistent recommendations now. There's this misperception that the CDC mandates things [but] mandating is something that takes place at the local level. The CDC will just give recommendations based on the epidemiological profile of the outbreak in your particular county, city or state.”
Back in April, you said that the US was “out of the pandemic phase.” With the spread of BA.5, do you believe that’s still the case?
“I said it's out of the fulminant stage of the pandemic. Don't interpret that [as] we're out of the pandemic. We still have a pandemic that, unfortunately, is alive and well. What I said was the fulminant stage where you had 800,000 cases a day and 3,000 deaths. Even though we're dealing with BA.5, we're down to 300 deaths per day. That's not acceptable. I'm not saying that's good. We should get much, much lower than that. But we're not at 3,000 deaths per day.
“The one thing we have to be careful of is that BA.5 is more transmissible than prior variants and it has a transmission advantage. If you look at the latest statistics, cases and hospitalizations are going up. It's still something we need to be careful and pay attention to.”
What is your biggest concern if the BA.5 subvariant doesn’t get under control?
“You don't want to go back to hundreds and hundreds of thousands of cases, and deaths go up. We want to make sure that we get as many people vaccinated. The vaccines work against BA.5, particularly against severe disease. [We want to] make sure people increase their testing. [And] make sure they're aware that when they do get infected, there are good antivirals and monoclonal antibodies that can protect people — particularly those at high risk for a complication.”
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