White House encourages booster shots as 90% of COVID deaths occur among the elderly

COVID's prevalence in the U.S. is much lower than it was during the past two winters, but it is hardly behind us. The U.S. is on pace to lose more than 150,000 Americans during this third year of the pandemic. The Biden administration is concerned and is trying to encourage the use of the booster. White House COVID Response Coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha joined Judy Woodruff to discuss the campaign.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The prevalence of COVID in the U.S. right now is much lower than it was during the past two winters, and its deadly toll far less, but COVID is hardly behind us.

    The U.S. is on pace to lose more than 150,000 Americans during this third year of COVID. And older Americans are at the greatest risk of dying. In fact, more than 300 people a day are dying from COVID on average, far higher than from the flu. And nine out of every 10 COVID deaths are among people who are 65 and older.

    The Biden administration is particularly concerned about these trends and trying to encourage more people to get booster shots.

    Dr. Ashish Jha is the COVID response coordinator for the White House. And he joins us now.

    Dr. Jha, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    So, these numbers we read are disturbing, nine out of every 10 of these deaths someone 65 and older .How much worse is that aspect of this than it was earlier in this pandemic?

  • Dr. Ashish Jha, White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator:

    Yes, so, Judy, first, thanks for having me back.

    We have seen over the last six months, eight months or so a clear shift towards more and more older Americans dying. Look, this virus has always affected older Americans more, but in the last six, eight months, it's become really quite extreme. Almost 70 percent of deaths are in people over 75.

    But the biggest issue here is, almost every one of these tests is preventable now. If people were up to date on their vaccines, and if people got treated if they had a breakthrough infection, we could get almost every one of those deaths — we could prevent almost every one of those deaths. That is our focus right now, is to try to do everything we can to lower that death.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I want to ask you about that.

    But is there — is there another factor or factors involved here, in addition to age? Is it — does it have to do with gender, with race, with income level?

  • Dr. Ashish Jha:

    Yes, there's no question about it that there are certain groups of Americans that have been at higher risk.

    We know that people who are — who are poorer, people who are racial and ethnic minorities throughout the whole pandemic have been more exposed to the virus, have had less access to high-quality care. That's been a major focus of ours, is to close that gap.

    And, thankfully, in the last six months, we have seen the racial gap close. We have seen the gap based on income get much smaller. So we have clearly made progress. But we have got to really continue plugging away at dropping — dropping those death numbers for all Americans.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And why is it happening? You're talking about the need to get more people vaccinated and boosted.

    Does it just go back to that issue that we have been talking about ever since the start of 2021?

  • Dr. Ashish Jha:

    Yes, you know, it turns out, if you looked at, for instance, our death rates compared with many other high-income countries, some other countries have lower death rates than us.

    What differentiates and explains that? It's almost all the rates of boosters among older people. That is the single determinative factor. There are other things that make a difference, too. As I mentioned earlier, treatments make a really big difference.

    But at this point with COVID, the single biggest thing that's going to drive how many people are going to get very sick, how many people are going to end up in the hospital, how many people are going to end up dying is whether people are up to date on their vaccines.

    So, if you got a vaccine a year ago, that's no longer good enough to protect — to provide the level of protection you need. Getting that updated vaccine that we have now really is the — is the game-changer that will make the difference.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, I read that something like only 11 percent of all Americans have received all the vaccinations, all the boosters that they should have by this point.

    First of all, is that accurate? And, second of all, what is the reason people are giving not to get these shots?

  • Dr. Ashish Jha:

    Yes, so I think what we have seen is, certainly in the last few months, we have a new strategy for how to help people get vaccinated.

    So, before then, you were thinking about, you need a third dose, you need a fourth dose, what are you eligible for, but we're now at a point where we have a much simpler strategy, which is, for a vast majority of Americans, this is now an annual shot. If you're not in a super high risk category, one shot once a year is going to be good enough.

    So, whether you have gotten two shots, or three shots or four shots, worry less about that. Worry and focus on getting that updated shot. I do want to put the caveat out that there are high-risk individuals who may end up needing more than once-a-year-vaccination, but that's going to be a minority.

    For a majority of Americans, it really is going to be about focusing on getting that shot just once a year, much simpler, much easier to do.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But do you have a better understanding now, Dr. Jha, of why people are resisting, why they're hesitating to get these shots?

    I mean, you have had now, what, almost two years to study this.

  • Dr. Ashish Jha:

    Yes, I wouldn't say people are resisting.

    The way I look at it is, if you look at surveys, a vast majority of Americans are open to getting it. The proportion of people who really say they are not going to get it is actually quite small. Remember, 90 percent of adults have gotten at least one shot. So people who have not — who are truly against getting vaccinated is very small.

    The issue in my mind is, it's been a hard three years. People are — people have been in the past not so clear about what are you eligible for or not. And then the other part that's really important is, when you think about the annual flu vaccine, most people go get that flu vaccine in November, December, January.

    So that's why we have launched a campaign right now to say to folks, this is a really good time to go out and get that COVID vaccine and get the flu vaccine. We think simpler messages that are straightforward, science-based really will make a difference.

    And then one last thing. We are doing a lot more work working with community leaders, trusted voices, religious leaders, because we think, at the end of the day, they're going to move the needle on getting more Americans vaccinated.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How much does it affect — I want to come back to what you just said. How much does it affect the prevalence of COVID, by virtue of the fact that we do have flu, we have the respiratory disease RSV?

    There's a lot of that flying around right now.

  • Dr. Ashish Jha:

    There is.

    There are three highly contagious respiratory viruses that are in high prevalence across the country. Now, the good news is, we do have very strong protections against two of them, right? Influenza — this year's influenza vaccine looks like it's a particularly good match. So that's promising. The COVID vaccine looks like a good match. That's promising.

    And then RSV, for most Americans, not that big a deal. It becomes a problem for young kids, kids under 2, who have small airways that can get clogged up if they get an RSV infection. So, making sure that we're — we have plenty of hospital capacity to take care of the youngest kids.

    I — if we focus on the things that we know work, we really can get through this winter. We have got the tools in our toolbox now to do it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But it also sounds like what you're saying is that Americans should just expect that COVID is going to be around for some time to come, that they should expect, yes, get your booster now, but you're going to need another one next year and the year after that.

  • Dr. Ashish Jha:

    Well, for the foreseeable future, I think it is absolutely reasonable to expect that COVID is going to be around. We're not eliminating this virus.

    And so then the question is, not just how do we live with it, but how do we live with it in a way that isn't killing hundreds of Americans every day, that is not disrupting our lives. And while the virus continues to evolve, Judy, the good news is, we do too. Our scientific community has been hard at work coming up with new treatments, updated vaccines.

    And the key now is to make sure those remain available to Americans, they remain highly accessible, free to Americans, and we do it in a way that allows Americans really be able to use these tools, so that they can go on with their lives.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Ashish Jha, who is the White House COVID coordinator, thank you so much.

  • Dr. Ashish Jha:

    Thank you.

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