Top Biden health officials sound warning on rising covid infections

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Top Biden administration officials warned Wednesday that one-third of Americans live in communities experiencing rising levels of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations and urged them to resume taking personal protection measures, including wearing masks.

The increase in new infections — nearing 100,000 a day — comes as the nation heads into Memorial Day weekend with its large gatherings and travel. That case count is almost certainly an undercount, officials said, given the widespread use of at-home tests whose results are often not reported to health officials.

Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, strongly encouraged those living in communities designated yellow or orange, indicating they have large numbers of new infections and hospitalizations, to consider wearing masks in indoor public spaces and taking other steps to protect themselves.

“As we’re currently seeing a steady rise of cases in parts of the country, we encourage everyone to use the menu of tools we have today to prevent further infection and severe disease, including wearing a mask, getting tested, accessing treatments early if infected and getting vaccinated or boosted,” she said.

Wednesday’s warnings from Walensky and two other officials — Ashish Jha, White House Covid-19 Response Coordinator, and Anthony S. Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser — came on the same day the United States surpassed the grim milestone of 1 million covid deaths, a toll that even the starkest predictions at the start of the pandemic in 2020 did not anticipate.

While officials stressed the current situation is far less dire than the winter omicron surge, they cautioned the country would be ill-prepared to respond effectively in coming months if Congress does not soon appropriate billions of dollars in covid aid to purchase a new tranche of antiviral treatments, vaccines and tests.

Walensky said the seven-day average of new infections has climbed to about 94,000 per day, an increase of 26 percent over the previous week and a threefold increase over the last month. Hospitalizations are also beginning to rise, she said, with admissions increasing about 19 percent over the previous week, to about 3,000 per day.

Biden officials and experts have said they expect a summer surge in the South as the heat forces people indoors, as happened the two previous summers. Some experts have warned this summer’s surge could be worse than last year’s because cases are currently higher than they were in May 2021.

They have also warned of a possible fall and winter wave that could result in about 1 million daily coronavirus infections driven by omicron subvariants that have shown a remarkable ability to escape immunity. That wave could be deadly if the administration cannot buy more vaccines, antivirals, tests and high quality masks, officials said.

“We have a pretty high degree of immunity in our population,” Jha said. “But we’re also seeing at this moment a lot of infections across the country. … What is primarily driving that is these incredibly contagious subvariants. … with more immune escape.”

Adding to that challenge: immunity fostered by vaccines and previous omicron infections wanes within a couple of months, meaning people can become reinfected in a short time span.

Moderna and Pfizer and its German partner, BioNTech, are working on new booster shots that combine versions of the coronavirus to protect against the omicron family of variants. But it remains unclear whether those shots will be more effective than existing vaccines. Even so, officials said the administration will struggle to purchase enough doses of the new vaccines without money from Congress.

“I’m confident we’ll find money to be able to get some Americans vaccinated. Maybe just [those at] the highest risk,” Jha said. “But these are not decisions we want to be having to make. … I think we would see a lot of unnecessary loss of life if that were to happen.”

The administration requested $22.5 billion in covid aid several months ago, a deal that collapsed over differences about how to pay for it. In early April, the Senate hammered out a bipartisan $10 billion deal, but backlash over the Biden administration’s decision to relax pandemic restrictions at the border imperiled passage of the compromise. Its prospects remain unclear.

The rise in cases comes as most mitigation measures, including mask mandates and limits on capacity at venues such as bars and restaurants have been lifted. CDC guidance advises implementing mask requirements when hospitalizations rise, and many counties now meet that threshold.

Dan Keating contributed to this report.

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