Health experts worry effort to vaccinate against COVID variants moving too slowly

The number of confirmed and reported COVID cases in the U.S. is at its lowest point since last spring. But the average number of deaths associated with COVID remains at more than 350 a day. Public health experts are increasingly concerned that too many Americans are missing out on a chance to get new boosters and avoid a worse winter. Dr. Peter Hotez joined John Yang to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The number of confirmed and reported COVID cases in the country are at their lowest point since last spring. And that's welcome news.

    But the average number of daily deaths associated with COVID remain very high, more than 350 a day. And public health experts are increasingly concerned that too many Americans are missing out on a chance to get the new boosters and avoid a worse winter.

    John Yang has the latest.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, new boosters became available around Labor Day to protect against both the original virus and the now dominant Omicron variant.

    Since then, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 11.5 million people in the United States have gotten one. But a Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll late last month found that half of those surveyed said they'd only heard a little or nothing at all about the updated boosters.

    So what does this mean for the coming winter?

    Dr. Peter Hotez is the co-director of the Texas Children's Hospital Center for vaccine development and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

    Dr. Hotez thanks so much for being with us, coming back on the show.

    We are now heading into the third winter dealing with COVID. But, this winter, a lot of the precautions that had been in place previously are no longer in place. But, on the other hand, a lot more people are vaccinated.

    What are your concerns about this winter?

    Dr. Peter Hotez, Baylor College of Medicine: Well, we have a good news/not-so-good news story.

    The good news is the number of cases is really starting to come down. And that's exciting. And so that allows us to do some things that we haven't been able to do in the past. But there's some concerns. First of all, the number of cases is going up in France in the U.K., the United Kingdom. And, for the last two winters, when we have seen a rise in cases in the United Kingdom and France, guess what? We start seeing cases first pop up in the Northeast, and then the rest of the country.

    So I think we do have to be concerned about this winter. And, as you rightly point out, not enough Americans are getting this new bivalent booster. And here's why that's important. Number one, the number — the protection against hospitalizations does decline several months after you're out from your last booster.

    So, if you're four or five months out of your last booster — away from your last booster, the protection could for — against hospitalization can go down from 80, 90 percent to 40, 50 percent. We don't have all of the numbers yet. But that's the way it's looking. So that's issue number one.

    Issue number two, if we do have another wave, chances are, it's going to look more like this BA.5 current variant than it does the original lineage. And, by getting that bivalent booster, it's going to pick up your virus-neutralizing antibodies and make it more likely that you're going to respond to whatever variant is coming down the pike.

    But only 11 million Americans have gotten it so far. That's only 4 percent of those eligible. The Kaiser Family Foundation survey says a third of Americans plan to take it. But that's still not adequate either. So we have a lot of work and advocacy to do over the next few weeks.

  • John Yang:

    Talk about that work ahead. I mean, the Kaiser Family Foundation also found that 51 percent of those surveyed said they'd only heard a little or nothing about this new bivalent vaccine.

    What more needs to be done to get the word out?

  • Dr. Peter Hotez:

    Well, a few things.

    I think the media has not been covering COVID nearly as much, and understandably, but we need to rev that back up and get the word out. We need the White House to step up and do a press conference, not only with the COVID leadership, with Dr. Jha and elsewhere, but, also, we need the president himself to be out there talking about the critical nature of getting boosted.

    And, unfortunately, we have this very aggressive anti-vaccine disinformation campaign that is — that's got a lot of bandwidth, and basically trying to make the case that Americans don't need the booster, which is absolutely false. And so that's working against us as well.

    So, finding ways to counter what I call anti-vaccine aggression, because that's killed so many Americans who've refused to take a COVID vaccine, that's going to be paramount.

  • John Yang:

    You talk about the need for President Biden to speak out to urge people to get this new vaccine. But the president also said that the pandemic is over.

    What's the — what's the effect of that on sort of the — on the public health standpoint, on boost — on getting people to get the booster?

  • Dr. Peter Hotez:

    Yes, when the president said that on Sunday night on 60 Minutes a couple of weeks ago, that was cringeworthy, because that's exactly what you do not want to be saying when you're trying to get the nation to take their booster, take this brand-new bivalent booster.

    And not only that, John. The other problem is, our kids are not getting vaccinated. Only a third of kids 5 to 11 are getting their COVID vaccine. We're also underperforming on influenza immunization. And one other really important point that I have had some discussions with the White House about is not enough seniors who do have breakthrough infections are getting Paxlovid.

    So, the internists are not prescribing Paxlovid as much as they should be. And that's so critically important, because, so far, seniors who have gotten Paxlovid, the mortality rate is way down. So we have got to get those three messages out, get the bivalent booster, get your kids vaccinated, and take Paxlovid if you're unfortunate enough to have breakthrough COVID.

    And those are the three most impactful things you can do right now to keep yourself and your family safe for what's likely to be potentially a very serious wave coming this winter.

  • John Yang:

    Why do you think Paxlovid, the antiviral medication, is not being prescribed as much?

  • Dr. Peter Hotez:

    You know, it could be that — well, there's a few things.

    One is the reality that there are a lot of drug interactions. And so internists often have to actually request that patient stop their ongoing medication for a few days while taking it. So that's complex.

    Second, sometimes it's — COVID-19, when it does cause a breakthrough infection, it's not serious immediately, but then it snowballs on you. So you get caught flat-footed. And then not enough information is out there in the medical community about how this is lifesaving, even if you have been vaccinated before.

    Unfortunately, there's still this buzz out there that's completely erroneous that tries to make the case that maybe Omicron is not as serious as previous virus lineages. And it's not the case. If you're undervaccinated, you're at high risk of getting hospitalized from Omicron and these new subvariants that are coming up.

  • John Yang:

    Quick last question.

    We have seen the flu — seasonal flu come back in a big way that it hadn't been doing in the past two years. How big of a complication is that going to be?

  • Dr. Peter Hotez:

    Yes, absolutely.

    And this is likely because people have not been together. They have been social distancing the last few years, so — and wearing masks and so flu is way down. Now it's in the Southern Hemisphere. It's been coming back with a vengeance over the summer and fall. And that sometimes is a predictor of what it's going to look like in the Northern Hemisphere in the winter.

    So many of us are predicting a severe flu season. So, the point is, when you get your COVID bivalent booster, which you should do ASAP, by the way, ask the pharmacist to get the flu vaccine in the other arm. Now's the time to do it, because now flu activity is starting to rise.

    For instance, where I am here in Texas, and in the Southern United States, and the whole country is going to be lit up with — as — in terms of the flu map, as well as COVID, over the winter.

  • John Yang:

    Dr. Peter Hotez from the Baylor College of Medicine, thank you very much.

  • Dr. Peter Hotez:

    Thank you.

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