This far into the pandemic and with new emerging concerns, it might feel like COVID is nothing to worry about anymore. But the truth is, the coronavirus is still affecting tens of thousands of people every day. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there is currently an average of more than 90,600 daily new COVID infections in the U.S. And while that’s certainly lower than what we’ve seen at earlier points this year, health experts have already warned about a potential for a new surge in the fall as the weather cools down and children return to school. With that in mind, the nation’s top virus expert has a new alert for Americans. Read on to find out if “you’re in danger” because you haven’t done this yet.
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The dominant version of the virus in the U.S. right now is the Omicron subvariant BA.5. According to the CDC, this variant is estimated to be causing 88.7 percent of infections in the nation. Other COVID iterations aren’t even close to overtaking BA.5 yet—although its sister subvariants BA.4.6 and BA.4 are responsible for most of the remaining infections, at 7.5 percent and 3.6 percent, respectively, per the CDC.
In June, Eric Topol, a virus expert and professor of medicine at Scripps Research, called BA.5 “the worst version of the virus we’ve seen” throughout the entire pandemic—even when compared to other versions of Omicron, including the original. “It takes immune escape, already extensive, to the next level, and, as a function of that, enhanced transmissibility,” Topol explained in a blog post.
With Omicron subvariants pushing the majority of infections in the U.S., experts have been warning that our current COVID vaccines are not as protective as they once were, because they were based on the original form of the virus. As a result, both Pfizer and Moderna began working on new vaccine formulas earlier this year. The two major vaccine manufacturers have now created bivalent vaccines, which target more than one strain. On Aug. 24, CNN reported that both Pfizer and Moderna have submitted requests to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for authorization of new bivalent booster shots that target BA.4 and BA.5
Things seem to be moving quickly, with White House COVID adviser Anthony Fauci, MD, revealing that the new boosters will be available to Americans soon. “It’s going to be available the first or second week in September from Pfizer and probably the end of September beginning of October from Moderna,” he said during an Aug. 24 interview on healthcare advisor Andy Slavitt’s In the Bubble podcast.
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With new boosters on the horizon, many Americans have one question on their minds: “Should I get a booster now or wait for the bivalent shot?” According to the latest data from the CDC, 77 percent of adults in the U.S. have been fully vaccinated. But “the not-so-good news is that only half of booster-eligible adults have gotten a booster,” the agency said. On top of that, only 34 percent of adults over the age of 50 have gotten their second booster.
In his interview with Slavitt, Fauci warned that waiting for the new booster could put some individuals at risk. “If you are an elderly person with an underlying condition and you have not been vaccinated in calendar year—boosted in calendar year 2022—you shouldn’t wait,” he said. “Because given the degree of viral dynamics with BA.5 right now, you’re in danger. So I wouldn’t wait.”
Everyone else might be better off waiting for the bivalent booster, however. “If you’re an otherwise healthy person—a young person, or even someone who’s a little bit older but still very few if any underlying conditions—I would wait,” Fauci told Slavitt. “Because the chances if you’re vaccinated but un-boosted of getting a severe illness is low. If you really want to get the updated booster of a BA.5, I would wait.”
In terms of the second booster for individuals under 50, the infectious disease expert had similar recommendations. “If I’m 45 years old and otherwise healthy and I’ve only gotten one boost, I would absolutely wait until September,” he said. “If I’m 45 years old and I have diabetes and chronic congestive heart failure, I might not wait. I may do it right away.”
Once the new booster does become available, Fauci cautions individuals against waiting for COVID to get worse again before getting another shot. “One of the dangers in waiting for an outbreak to occur is that by the time you know it’s occurred, you may be one of the vulnerable people that got infected,” he explained. “So if I had not been boosted in let’s say the last six months or so and it came out in the middle of September, I would probably get it right away. Or try and coincide it with the influenza vaccine—try to get them both at the same time.”