White House officials urged older Americans to get a second COVID-19 booster shot as more infectious variants of the omicron strain spread. South Carolina hospitals are also seeing more patients, including increasing hospitalizations of children.
Officials have been closely monitoring the BA.4 and BA.5 variants of the omicron strain, which have now become the dominant strains in the U.S., Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, said at a press conference July 12.
"We've been planning and preparing for this moment," he said. "We have all of the capabilities we need to protect the American people."
The BA.5 strain now accounts for 65 percent of all strains, and BA.4 is 16 percent in the genomic surveillance conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, director Rochelle Walensky said.
While the strains are still being studied, they appear to be more transmissible and better able to evade neutralizing antibodies from both vaccination and prior infection, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to President Joe Biden. Even prior infection with an earlier strain of omicron is not very protective against the current strains, Fauci said.
That those strains would dominate "is not a surprise," Jha said.
Those strains appear to have an advantage in spreading even over earlier strains of omicron, Fauci said.
In addition to increasing infections, hospitalizations are also up to about 5,100 per day in the U.S. — a slight increase over the previous week but a doubling since April, Walensky said.
There is nothing so far to suggest that the current strains of the virus cause more severe disease than previous omicron variants, Fauci said.
Yet the number of patients in South Carolina hospital beds continues to grow, and children are making up a larger portion of them. There were seven hospitalized July 12 at MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children's Hospital — the highest total in months — and children now make up one in four cases in the state, said Dr. Elizabeth Mack, chief of pediatric critical care.
In the Charleston area, there were 41 COVID-19 patients hospitalized at the Medical University of South Carolina, 17 at Trident Health and 16 at Roper St. Francis Healthcare, the hospitals reported. Hospitalizations were up 45.6 percent in South Carolina over the last two weeks, according to an analysis of public health data by The Post and Courier.
All of those hospitalized children at MUSC were eligible for vaccination but none were fully vaccinated, Mack said.
"What we know is that vaccines work," she said. "Regardless of the variant, the vaccine’s job is to prevent hospitalizations and death. We also get excited when it can prevent spread and cases. But we know the vaccine still works against these variants.”
White House health officials say the same thing. The problem, Fauci said, is that immunity tends to wane over time, so making sure you are up to date with boosters is important. Among those over age 50, only 28 percent had gotten a second booster, and only 34 percent of those over age 65 had received a second, Walensky said.
If someone is in that age range and has not received a booster shot during 2022, now is the time, Jha said.
"It could save your life," he said, referencing studies showing those who had received boosters were four times less likely to die than those with just the first primary vaccination.
For those concerned about omicron-specific shots that have been ordered and expected in the fall to winter months, getting a booster now will not preclude them from receiving those shots, as well, Jha said.
"The threat to you is now if you are not vaccinated to the fullest," Fauci said.
That is particularly true this week with more than 73 percent of Americans living in counties with medium to high transmission of the virus, Walensky said — including 35 out of 46 counties in South Carolina.
Boosters, and taking appropriate measures and precautions, are the key to living with the current omicron strains, Fauci said.
"We should not let it disrupt our lives," he said. "But we cannot deny it is a reality we have to deal with. The good news is, we have the tools to do this."
Meanwhile, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control reported more than 13,000 COVID-19 cases but no new deaths related to the virus from July 3-9.
New cases reported: 13,164
Total cases in S.C.: 1,573,585
New deaths reported: 0
Total deaths in S.C.: 18,055
Percent of ICU beds filled (with COVID-19 and other patients): 62.4percent
Percent positive: 22.9 percent
S.C. residents vaccinated
In South Carolina, 60.4 percent of people who are eligible for the vaccine have received at least one dose, and 52.4 percent of eligible residents are considered fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.
These numbers reflect all eligible residents in South Carolina, including young children. The latest data from DHEC shows 21.5 percent of children ages 5-11 have at least one vaccine dose and .9 percent of those under age 5 have received a shot.
Of the 367 COVID-19 patients hospitalized as of July 5, 47 were in the ICU and nine were using ventilators.
What do experts say?
In a recent study published in the journal Science, scientists working in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health reported progress toward a vaccine that would target the family of viruses that cause COVID-19 and other illnesses, known as Betacoronaviruses. Fauci, who is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said continuing that effort or even accelerating it would take more funding from Congress.