Healthcare

Officials wary of new COVID-19 surge as country relaxes

A new surge in COVID-19 infections in Europe has public health experts concerned the U.S. is not prepared to respond to a similar wave.

Much of the country has lifted the few remaining precautions after a sharp decline in cases. U.S. infections are at an eight-month low, but administration officials and health experts are keeping wary eyes on BA.2, the subvariant of omicron fueling the overseas spike. 

Europe has consistently been a window into America’s future throughout the pandemic. A widespread outbreak overseas is usually followed by one in the U.S. several weeks later.

The BA.2 version of omicron is not any more severe than the original omicron variant, but it is more transmissible. Combined with relaxed precautions like indoor masking and waning immunity among those who have not received a vaccine booster, experts said they are not surprised to see cases rising in Europe. 

Administration officials are monitoring the situation overseas carefully because the same conditions exist in the U.S.

“I would not be surprised if, in the next few weeks, we do see an uptick in cases,” White House chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci said in a Thursday PBS interview. “The really important issue is that, will that be manifested in an increase in severe disease that would lead to hospitalization?”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky said the BA.2 version of omicron has been present in the U.S. since mid-December, but hasn’t had a chance to spread widely.

“So we aren’t seeing this massive takeoff of omicron, of BA.2, but we do anticipate that we will see more and more of it and it may become the predominant variant in the weeks ahead,” Walensky said Thursday during a panel discussion with the Bipartisan Policy Center.

For the week ending March 12, BA.2 accounted for 23.1 percent of all new coronavirus infections in the United States, according to CDC data, the largest percentage yet. 

Walensky said she is in touch with colleagues in Europe to discuss hospitalization trends and find out what they’re learning as the subvariant of omicron spreads.

“In terms of what we’re seeing in the U.K. and other countries, all of this is happening also while there’s waning immunity … but then also that the communities and population has opened up. They relaxed many of their mitigation strategies — as have we,” Walensky said.

The officials’ concerns take on additional urgency amid uncertainty about the future of the U.S. pandemic response. More than $15 billion in funding is stalled in Congress amid a political standoff, with no clear path forward. 

President Biden had initially asked Congress for $22.5 billion in new funding to fight the ongoing pandemic — a figure that was whittled down to $15.6 billion in the face of Republican opposition on Capitol Hill.

Republicans have been largely against any new COVID-19 related spending, and some question whether more money is needed at all. 

They insisted the compromise amount be paid for by clawing back previously allocated state funds. When some Democrats objected, the provision was stripped from a must-pass government funding bill.  

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra this week huddled with Democrats on Capitol Hill, stressing the urgency of getting more pandemic funding.

Becerra told reporters on Friday he has been completely open with lawmakers about what the agency has done, and what it can do, with the appropriate resources.

“There has been transparency and there has been detail provided to Congress. Let no one say that they are not aware of the consequences of what they do,” Becerra said.

Administration officials warn that without the funding, they will have to make major cutbacks, including to the availability of a potential fourth dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. 

“We certainly know that we don’t have adequate resources should a fourth dose be needed for all Americans,” HHS Deputy Secretary Andrea Palm told reporters Friday. 

Both Pfizer and Moderna this week asked the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use authorization of an additional booster shot amid fears of waning immunity. Pfizer is asking authorization for people over 65, while Moderna’s request was for all adults.

Most health experts said they don’t expect to see a huge spike in severe infections or hospitalizations from the BA.2 version of omicron. But there will likely be other variants, and experts and advocates have expressed alarm that Congress is leaving America ill-prepared.

“This is a pattern that we’ve seen many, many times. Policymakers react to crises much more readily than they react to prevent something,” said Jen Kates, director of global health & HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation.  

In addition, Kates said the recent CDC guidance suggesting most Americans can stop wearing masks was ill-timed, because it now makes it harder to convince the public and members of Congress that the pandemic is still something that needs to be taken seriously.

“Unfortunately, that sort of shift by the CDC coincided with the running out of the money. So it really makes it hard to argue or to demonstrate that we could be at a precipice, when at the same time, the public health reins are being loosened. It doesn’t create a logical story.”

Tags Anthony Fauci BA.2 Coronavirus covid surge COVID-19 Joe Biden omicron Rochelle Walensky Xavier Becerra

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