US Prepares for Cold Weather Surge, Beating Covid?, Virus Cases Hits Annual Wash DC Dinner, Wold Covid Stats

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White House preps for cold-weather wave of 100M COVID infections

by Peter Sullivan

The Hill

The White House is preparing for as many as 100 million Americans to get infected with COVID-19 during a wave this fall and winter if Congress does not provide new funding for vaccines and tests, a senior administration official said Friday, warning new money is needed to have enough vaccines for everyone.

A senior administration official told a small group of reporters on Friday that the estimate is the median of a range of models from outside experts that the administration consults, meaning it is also possible significantly more Americans catch the virus, especially if there is a major new variant.

That compares with the roughly 130-140 million Americans who are estimated to have been infected over the omicron wave this winter, which led to a significant spike in deaths.

The administration argues the number of cases could be lower if new funding allows for many Americans to get updated vaccines this fall and for testing to be plentiful.

The Biden administration argues the new wave is not a cause for panic, given there are new tools like the highly-effective Pfizer pill known as Paxlovid, as well as vaccinations.

But officials are trying to sound the drumbeat that they need new funding from Congress in order to have those tools available during the wave coming later this year.

Pfizer and Moderna are working on new versions of the vaccine aimed at being more effective against the newer mutations of the virus. The so-called bivalent vaccine would target the omicron variant as well as the original strain.

Those new vaccines are expected to be ready by the fall, but the U.S. will not have enough money to purchase them for all Americans unless Congress provides new funding, the administration says.

The senior administration official said the contingency plan if Congress does not provide new money is to take all funding out of testing, new treatments and vaccine education and outreach, and try to pile it up to have enough to maybe be able buy enough updated vaccines only for the elderly.

Without new money, supplies of Paxlovid are expected to run out by October or November, the official said, meaning if people got the virus in a wave over the holidays the treatment would not be available.

Despite repeated calls from the administration, new COVID-19 funding remains stalled in Congress amid Republican resistance. Republicans are demanding a vote to stop the administration’s lifting of pandemic-era restrictions at the southern border, known as Title 42, which is also politically dicey for Democrats given that some of their moderate members also oppose lifting the measure.

It is possible the COVID-19 funding could get a lift by being attached to new Ukraine aid moving through Congress, but Democratic leaders have not yet made clear if they intend to do that, with the GOP warning against the move.

 

The White House has asked for $22.5 billion, though lawmakers have eyed a smaller amount, $10 billion, which the parties were able to figure out a way to pay for.

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Other countries are also eager to purchase more treatments and updated vaccines, the official said, meaning if the U.S. tries to wait until the fall to buy them, there are unlikely to be supplies available until months later.

A shortage of rapid tests was also a widespread problem over the omicron wave this winter. The official warned Friday that testing companies are now looking to lay off workers and would not have enough supply for a fall wave, unless the government steps in with new funding.

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In depth: How close are we to beating Covid?

Guardian

For all intents and purposes, and for most people, it would be fair to say it feels like the pandemic is over. Mask mandates, lockdowns, even self-isolation – these restrictions on our behaviour now seem like relics from a bygone era. But viral respiratory diseases don’t cease to exist just because we want them to: 2 February marked the highest daily rise of Covid deaths in over a year, a month after all restrictions were dropped. So what are the numbers – and more importantly – what do they mean in a time when the general consensus is that we must “live with Covid”?


Infection rates are stable … for now

Overall, infection and hospitalisation rates seem to have returned to where they were before the BA.2 variant of Omicron became more widespread. However, there is a tension, Hannah says, between where we are as a society and where we are as individuals when it comes to Covid rates: “We’re in this sort of strange in-between stage where, for most individuals, Covid is not the severe risk to health that it once was.” According to data analysed by the Financial Times, the majority of people infected with Covid-19 are now at a marginally lower risk of dying than people who catch the seasonal flu.

But when we look at the bigger picture things become less clear. “[Covid] doesn’t quite sit yet within our normal range of winter illnesses. We’re still experiencing these huge waves of infection,” Hannah says. Even though it looks like the worst of the pandemic is over, at least in terms of severe illness and death, another surge could put further pressure on an already strained NHS, which was pushed to its limits during the other waves of the pandemic.


Death rates dictate the road ahead

A rise in infection rates was expected once all restrictions and guidance ended at the end of February, but it is death rates that ultimately seem to determine how the government responds to the pandemic. In total, more than 175,000 people have died of Covid-19 in the UK since the outbreak of the virus, while the WHO says there have been nearly 15 million excess deaths worldwide.

At the height of the pandemic, the death toll was more than 1,000 deaths on average each day. Now, according to data from the Office for National Statistics, the daily count stands at just over a fifth of that number, with Covid now the sixth-leading cause of death in the UK (it was the leading cause of death for several months in 2020 and 2021). That is clearly a significant change, achieved despite the end of all restrictions and the seeming infeasibility of a zero-Covid strategy. “We’ve seen from the lockdowns – achieving zero Covid comes at an impossibly high price at this point,” Hannah tells me.

However, that is still more than 200 deaths a day from Covid in the UK. While vaccines and education have changed the Covid crisis for the better, there’s an almost inevitable desensitisation to the mortality rates. As we move from pandemic to epidemic, the government – and the country more broadly – has decided the goal is mitigation and management rather than eradication.


The future of vaccines

It would be understandable to assume that research on Covid-19 vaccines is largely over – or at the very least not as urgent as it once was. There’s good reason to think this: overall, the vaccination programme in this country has worked well – 93% of people over the age of 12 have had one dose, 87% have had two, and 58% have had a booster, too.

But that is only part of the picture. Globally, there is still huge vaccine inequality – as of April, only 15.2% of populations in low-income countries have received one dose of the vaccine.

As Covid continues to run rampant in certain parts of the world, with numbers on the rise in countries including South Africa and India, the threat of a variant that could escape immunity still exists. So, what happened to the variant-specific vaccines? The short answer is that the pharmaceutical industry is still working on it.

“Companies are pushing ahead with their variant vaccines – Moderna has been successful, targeting the release by autumn for their Omicron vaccine,” says Hannah. “The idea is that it’s supposed to give double immunity”. It is, she adds, “an evolving picture”. The reason why there seems to be less urgency than at the start of the pandemic is that, ultimately, the vaccines we have are still good at preventing severe disease and death.

Broader vaccines that target multiple variants and, hopefully, future strains are also in development, as is a nasal spray which is supposed to prevent people from catching Covid in the first place (to learn more about them, take a look at this explainer by Ian Sample). Realistically, it looks like these boosters will be limited to those who are older or are clinically vulnerable – which begs the question, what about everyone else?

It’s hard to predict the future when it comes to an ever-shifting and mutating virus, and researchers are still learning about it. “It’s not clear what that landscape will look like, because we’re still learning about how immunity wanes over time,” says Hannah. “Until we know that, we can’t really predict what proportion of the population will need boosters and what will be fine.”

While everyone from Boris Johnson to Anthony Fauci, Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, has declared that the pandemic is over, that doesn’t feel true for everyone. “More than three million people in the UK are clinically vulnerable, and some of these people don’t respond well to vaccines,” Hannah explains. “Those people feel like they’re left behind, they don’t feel politically important. It must be particularly dreadful to see everyone going back to normal but you can’t – everyone seems to have forgotten you.”

There are still many question marks around what “living with Covid” means for our futures. What’s clear, however, is if we want to continue enjoying our renewed freedom, we can’t simply pretend that the virus that changed the world two short years ago has now disappeared.

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COVID-19 cases climb after White House media dinner

COVID-19 cases among attendees at the White House correspondents’ dinner last weekend are mounting, highlighting the continued threat of the virus as cases rise nationally.

High-profile cases following the dinner include ABC reporter Jonathan Karl, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and reporters from The Washington Post, Voice of America and other outlets.

There is no exact count, and it is not clear which dinner attendees contracted the virus at the dinner itself or at one of the many parties last weekend surrounding it.

But the string of reported cases does emphasize the point that even as the country seeks to move on from the virus, large indoor gatherings do carry some risk.

The cases have also played into an ongoing debate, with some arguing that the current era of COVID-19 allows vaccinated and boosted people to decide to attend large gatherings even if it means a small risk, while others are more cautious, pointing to the downstream effects on other people of increased transmission.

Reactions among attendees testing positive also varied.

“I’m yet another [White House Correspondents’ Association] weekend casualty,” tweeted Julia Ioffe, a correspondent at Puck News. “I knew I was taking a risk and, well, here we are!”

Jada Yuan, who covered the dinner for The Washington Post, also tweeted she tested positive afterward and would have to miss an international work trip she had been looking forward to.

“Hindsight and all that, but wear a mask or leave or tell your employer you can’t go if you’re in a situation where you feel uncomfortable,” she tweeted. “Those consequences are usually better than the ones you’ll face if you get sick.”

The dinner did require that all attendees test negative the day of attendance and that they be vaccinated. But those  measures were not always in place at the surrounding parties that weekend.

“We worked hard to publicize our protocols and encouraged those eligible to get booster shots in the weeks leading up to the dinner,” Steven Portnoy, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, wrote in an email. “Our event implemented protocols that went beyond any guidance or regulation issued by the CDC or the DC health department. We wish anyone who may not be feeling well a speedy recovery.”

Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University, wrote in The Washington Post last month after another string of cases after a different Washington, D.C., gathering, the Gridiron Dinner, that the event “shows what living with covid-19 looks like.”

She noted on Friday that the correspondents’ dinner had testing and vaccination requirements, so some of the cases could have come from surrounding events that did not have those precautions.

More broadly, she said, referring to vaccinations and new treatments such as the highly effective Pfizer treatment Paxlovid, “we have tools that allow us to continue the social activities that all of us as humans crave.”

“The key metric that we should be looking at here is are people getting severely ill,” she added.

There are no reports so far of any dinner attendees being hospitalized.

Attendees at the White House correspondents’ dinner are generally privileged and well-connected people who have much better access to treatments such as Paxlovid as well as paid time off and other benefits than some other Americans do.

The nature of a highly infectious disease such as COVID-19 is that cases from the dinner will not stop there, and people can transmit the virus to others.

“It’s not about the people who are at the event,” said Walid Gellad, a professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh. “What you do impacts what happens to other people.”

“It’s probably very easy for them to get Paxlovid,” he said of the “highly privileged” dinner attendees. “For others that the people at this gathering might affect, it may be more difficult.”

There are additional ways to make events safer that do not come down to only the simple choice of having events or not having events, he said, noting measures such as improving ventilation or reducing the size of the event to avoid crowding in addition to the testing and vaccine measures.

The dinner’s most high-profile guest, President Biden, has so far avoided testing positive.

The White House has acknowledged it is possible he will get the virus at some point and the “risk assessment” that went into attending the dinner.

Biden said in his State of the Union address in March that the country had reached a point where COVID-19 “no longer need control our lives.”

Asked on Friday about the president’s precautions given the string of COVID-19 cases after the dinner, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “He went to the correspondents’ dinner to honor the work of all of you and your colleagues and made a decision — a risk assessment, like we all do every day — that that was important for him to do.”

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WORLD COVID  STATS

Coronavirus Cases:

517,364,664

Deaths:

6,276,552        (WHO CLAIMS 15M ACTUAL DEATHS FROM COVID-19)

Recovered:

472,139,254
Highlighted in green
= all cases have recovered from the infection
Highlighted in grey
= all cases have had an outcome (there are no active cases)

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Latest News

May 9 (GMT)

Updates

  • 110 new cases and 1 new death in Laos [source]
  • 40,942 new cases and 28 new deaths in Japan [source]
  • 415 new cases and 11 new deaths in China The number of  new asymptomatic cases, which China counts separately, were  3,918  [source]
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