NASHVILLE, TN – The FDA authorized a second booster this week for people 50 and up. The Biden administration wants to protect thousands now in case there is a new surge in the fall.
The decision was hotly debated among federal health officials and many of them think there will be another wave. They think it will be like the Omicron BA.2 sub-variant or something new and deadly. If there is a new wave coming, offering a second booster now for older Americans could save thousands of lives and prevent tens of thousands of hospitalizations.
Federal officials say anyone who gets a booster this Spring, should get another shot in the Fall regardless of age. The plan has its skeptics. For one thing, there may not be a new surge. If extra shots weren’t needed then it would be a waste of vaccine doses. People are developing “vaccination fatigue” and millions stubbornly remain unvaccinated.
“We’ve seen cases decrease dramatically after the past few weeks, and our national numbers remain close to historic lows, which is encouraging“ said CDC’s Dr. John Brooks.
Brooks is Senior Science Advisor of the CDC’s Emergency COVID-19 Response.
He said the CDC has been tracking the omicron BA.2 sub-variant in the U.S. for two months. As of last week, BA.2 accounted for 35% of circulating variants.
“There is no evidence that this BA.2 variant results in more severe disease nor does it appear to be more likely to evade immune protection. But it does have increased transmission in comparison to the BA.1 variant which peaked in December 2021,” Brooks said.
So far the rise in BA.2 cases has not put excess strain on hospitals. Wastewater surveillance in New York and parts of New England found fragments of the BA.2 variant in sewage. That explains the uptick in cases and hospitalizations there.
Brooks said the CDC is closely monitoring the virus to predict a new wave. Early warning indicators are wastewater surveillance, an uptick in cases and hospitalizations, as well as gene sequencing that monitors for circulating variants.
The CDC is using those tools to make recommendations in “a community level framework” so public health officials can respond quickly to regional spikes of coronavirus.
“Sometimes I like to make the analogy of a tornado warning versus tornado watch. Our system presently is more like a tornado watch. We’re seeing there is a potential change happening but that is not a 4-alarm fire. That is a warning signal that we need to look deeper and see what is going on,” he said.
The U.S. is different than Great Britain, Western Europe, and parts of Asia because the U.S. has high levels of immunity compared to other countries.
CDC studies have found evidence of coronavirus antibodies in 95% of the U.S. population. The CDC’s COVID Tracker estimates 94% of people in Middle Tennessee have coronavirus antibodies; 33% were infected; 61% developed antibodies from vaccines.
Brooks said size is another difference between the U.S. and other countries. “One part of the country may see increases where others do not,” he said.
“We are in a much stronger position than we were two years ago,” said Dr. Shannon Stokley, Co-Lead, of the CDC’s Vaccine Task Force. She said we are much better prepared if and when a new wave of the virus strikes.
Last month, the CDC outlined a new set of measures for deciding whether to lift mask-wearing rules, focusing less on positive test results and more on hospitalizations.
“If you are boosted you are twenty-one times less likely to die from COVID 19. Vaccination remains the most effective and safest way to prevent COVID-19,” Stokley said.
Initial Response to COVID-19
The early response to COVID-19 was inadequate to say the least; in fact, it was pathetic. At every level, testing and surveillance efforts failed to stem the spread of the virus.
In early 2020 there weren’t enough COVID-19 tests so they were rationed among the states; secondly, they were not free. Many residents in SE Nashville lacked insurance and that area became a red zone of infection that defied efforts to trace and suppress the rate of infection in the city.
After the Trump administration provided money for states to do testing, the Lee administration botched the oversight of its contracts with labs; there were too few of them, they did not return results quick enough to do much good; when the Tennessee Department of Health increased the number of labs they performed no better.
Tennessee spent seven months in 2021 on COVID Tracker maps colored red or purple —denoting an extremely high risk of infection. Total COVID deaths in Tennessee number 25,519. Total deaths in the U.S. as of last week were 975,465. (See testing)
The rollout of vaccines in 2021 was late and like COVID-19 tests, there weren’t enough being produced, so they, too, had to be rationed. The country played catch up with a raging public health crisis for at least a year and a half. (See Delta)
Between Spring 2020 and December 2021, the Tennessee Department of Health reported 20,644 COVID-19 fatalities. Total deaths in the U.S. in 2021 were 467,000, according to the CDC.
How Prepared Are We Now?
Last week the Associated Press reported there are 131 million doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines on hand. Stokley said we have already given three times more vaccines than the number of shots during a normal flu season.
While vaccine effectiveness does wane over time, studies show it is still 78 percent effective against severe disease 4-5 months later.
New vaccines are being developed and could be ready by Fall but the Biden administration doesn’t have the money to pay in advance for doses of the next generation of vaccines. That could cause a calamity like the failure of the Trump administration to deliver vaccines in time to save thousands of lives in 2021.
“We know vaccination is critical to protect you and prevent severe infection,” Stokley said.
She said even if you catch COVID-19 you could still get a vaccination or a booster right away. You don’t have to wait.
COVID-19 testing is free and home test kits are available. You can request them from the U.S. Post Office or call 1-800-CDC-INFO, or go online to: https://www.covidtests.gov/