A pair of highly transmissible omicron subvariants that quickly changed the U.S. variant scene are not yet prompting any new strategies from the White House.
BA.4 and BA.5 were responsible for more than 81% of new coronavirus cases reported last week, according to updated estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s up from 70% of infections the week prior.
The pair only started causing a significant number of cases in the U.S. at the start of May. Their rapid rise comes as fewer Americans consider COVID-19 to be a major threat to public health even as hospitalizations increase.
“Over the last several months, we’ve seen each successive variant have a bit of a transmission advantage over the prior one,” leading infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci said Tuesday during a press conference. “Right now, we’re with BA.4/5, and we don’t know what the future will hold as we might get even more subvariants.”
Average daily COVID-19 hospitalizations have doubled since May. New coronavirus cases have plateaued at about 100,000 per day for nearly two months. Deaths are averaging roughly 350 per day – a number that CDC Director Rochelle Walensky called “too high.”
Despite the trends, White House officials on Tuesday insisted the U.S. is prepared for the subvariants and stuck to their usual talking points surrounding vaccines, therapeutics and masks.
“Even in the face of BA.5, the tools we have continue to work,” White House COVID-19 response coordinator Ashish Jha said.
The White House on Tuesday released a strategy to manage BA.5 – the dominant subvariant circulating – that stressed vaccines, boosters, at-home coronavirus tests and masks, among other things. The plan did not appear to indicate any significant changes in strategies or new measures in the fight against the pandemic.
Convincing more Americans to get boosted or wear masks while inside public spaces is a hard sell as the White House also tells Americans not to let the virus affect their daily lives anymore.
Cartoons on the Coronavirus
Fauci said that “we should not let [COVID-19] disrupt our lives, but we cannot deny that it is a reality that we need to deal with,” adding that it should be taken seriously.
While it remains unclear whether BA.4 and BA.5 cause more severe disease than previous strains, they do appear to more easily evade protection from prior infection or vaccination.
Some outlets reported Monday that as a way to combat the subvariants, the White House is considering offering a second COVID-19 booster shot to more people. But the administration on Tuesday downplayed the reports, saying it would be up to the CDC and Food and Drug Administration.
“We have conversations all the time about what are possible things we can be doing to better protect the American people,” Jha said.
The officials added that getting a booster shot now would not preclude them from being able to get the updated shots planned to roll out this fall.