The US could see a significant surge in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths this fall and winter unless the country prepares and acts, according to public health experts with the Biden administration.
Last week, administration officials told reporters in a background briefing that some disease models projected that the US could see 100 million coronavirus infections this winter, though there is a wide range of possibilities. The noted forecast assumed that omicron subvariants continued to be dominant in the country, rather than a dramatically different variant potentially worsening the outlook.
In an interview Sunday on ABC’s This Week, White House COVID-19 response coordinator Ashish Jha reiterated the warning of a winter surge, noting that each pandemic winter so far has included large surges, and the conditions will be prime for another this season. Protection from first and even second boosters will wane by this fall. Meanwhile, the virus will continue to evolve new variants and subvariants, and people will huddle indoors during the cold weather and end-of-year holidays.
“We’re looking at a range of models, both internal and external models,” Jha said. “And what they’re predicting is that if we don’t get ahead of this thing, we’re going to have a lot of waning immunity, this virus continues to evolve, and we may see a pretty sizable wave of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths this fall and winter.”
Jha noted that the current omicron subvariants are particularly good at circumventing protection from vaccines to cause mild infections in people up to date with their shots. The country is now experiencing a bump in cases driven by BA.2 and a newer subvariant BA.2.12.1, with the Northeastern part of the country seeing the largest increase in cases.
“We have not seen a huge spike of deaths because the population is so well vaccinated and boosted [in the Northeast],” Jha noted. “That’s not true for the whole country,” he added, referencing concerns that the South will be harder hit by case increases because of relatively lower vaccination and booster rates. “So we have got to continue plugging away at getting more people vaccinated and boosted. We’ve got to get more therapeutics in place. If we have the resources to do all of that, I do think we can get through this winter without a lot of suffering and death.”
The White House recently sought $22.5 billion in emergency aid to cover COVID-19 booster doses this fall, as well as therapeutics, testing, and other pandemic-related resources. Last month, Senate leaders came up with a $10 billion bipartisan deal for COVID-19 relief, which notably does not include funding for international pandemic aid. However, Republican lawmakers have blocked the pared-down funding package, withholding support unless they are guaranteed an amendment vote to extend Title 42, a Trump-era policy that allows for the expulsion of immigrants from the board due to public health reasons.
But funding is not the only obstacle to preparing for a surge this fall and winter; misinformation is also a significant hurdle, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Robert Califf said in a CNN interview Saturday. Misinformation continues to plague the country, preventing people from getting vaccinated, boosted, and taking necessary health precautions, Califf said.
“Almost no one in this country should be dying from COVID,” he said, citing the high efficacy rates of both vaccines and treatments against severe disease and death. He noted that life expectancy has declined in the US recently, in part due to COVID-19 in the last two years. The pandemic virus is now the third leading cause of death in the country. With the pandemic in a lull, there are still more than 360 deaths each day from COVID-19.
Califf blamed misinformation for drowning out science-based health messages and “leading people to make bad choices that are unfortunate for their health.” To date, the country has tallied nearly 1 million deaths due to COVID-19.