Ashish Jha, White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator, speaks at the daily White House press briefing in Washington, U.S., July 25, 2022.
Jonathan Ernest | Reuters
A senior White House health official on Monday issued a strong warning to older people about the health risk they face from Covid-19 this fall and winter.
DR Ashish Jha, head of the White House Covid task force, said everyone over the age of 50, and particularly seniors, needed to get an Omicron booster as soon as possible.
“If you are over 50, certainly if you are over 65, you need to get these vaccines because they could actually literally save your life. It’s a difference between life and death,” Jha said during an interview with Yahoo Finance.
Elderly people have been at high risk of becoming seriously ill with Covid since the pandemic began. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an average of more than 330 people still die from Covid every day.
About 70% of people currently dying from Covid are aged 75 and over, Jha told reporters earlier this month. He said people who die from the virus either don’t have their vaccines up to date or don’t receive treatments like the antiviral pill Paxlovid if they have breakthrough infections.
“If you are up to date with your vaccines and treated if you have a breakthrough infection, your risk of dying from Covid is now close to zero,” Jha told reporters at the White House last week.
He said people should get their Omicron booster by Halloween so they’re protected until Thanksgiving, when families and friends gather for the holiday. US health officials expect another round of infections this winter as people spend more time indoors, where the airborne virus is more easily transmitted.
The Food and Drug Administration and CDC are confident that the new boosters will provide better protection against infection because they target the dominant subvariant omicron BA.5, while the first-generation vaccines were developed against the first strain found in Wuhan, China emerged in 2019
The original recordings no longer offer any meaningful protection against infections and minor illnesses because the virus has mutated so much since the beginning of the pandemic. In addition to omicron BA.5, the new boosters also contain the original Covid strain. Health officials believe that because the vaccines cover so many mutations, these bivalent vaccines will offer superior protection even as the virus continues to evolve.
How much more effective the new boosters will prove to be in the real world is not yet clear. The FDA approved the recordings without direct human data, relying instead on clinical trials of a similar vaccine targeting the first version of Omicron, BA.1.
Pfizer and BioNTech released the first direct human data on the recordings last week. According to the companies, the boosters significantly increased protective antibodies against omicron BA.5 in adults 18 years and older. Antibodies prevent the virus from entering human cells.
Younger people should also get a booster shot this fall, although they have a lower risk of getting seriously ill, Jha said. The FDA and CDC quickly approved Omicron syringes for children as young as 5 last week. Jha said the benefits of vaccination outweigh the risks for young people.
“I have encouraged all my family to get vaccinated, all my friends to get vaccinated, my nieces and nephews and children all got vaccinated because for them the benefits outweigh the risks,” Jha said.
During last January’s massive omicron surge, there was a surge of children hospitalized with Covid. Physicians also fear that children and adolescents, even with a mild infection, could contract Covid in the long term.
Young men and adolescent boys are at increased risk of a type of heart infection called myocarditis, usually after the second dose of Pfizer and Moderna shots. But the CDC said the risk of myocarditis is higher after a Covid infection in a study published in April.
The autumn booster campaign has gotten off to a slow start since the introduction of vaccinations in September. About 15 million doses have been administered to date, according to CDC data. Jha said he expects more people to get the boosters this month.