CDC Photo of vaccination for COVID
Special to the Trice Edney News Wire from Ethnic Media Services
By Sunita Sohrabji
(TriceEdneyWire.com) – The US is experiencing a summer swell of infections, though hospitalization rates remain relatively stable. Three eminent experts conclude that Covid-19 will continue to pose a health threat over many years, as it continues its evolution. But updated vaccines are expected to mitigate the severity of infections.
Covid-19 cases are rising once again, possibly fueled by the emergence of the EG.5 variant. Hospitalization rates jumped by 12.5% nationwide in July, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This uptick comes even as the public health emergency has ended, taking with it free testing and therapeutics. And Covid fatigue has set in. People no longer wear masks in public, and a study has determined that the majority of Americans will forego new boosters, which will be available this fall.
At an Aug. 11 panel discussion organized by Ethnic Media Services, three eminent Covid experts examined the rise in cases, the new variant, and the new monovalent vaccine which will be available this fall.
● Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, Associate Dean for Regional Campuses, University of California, San Francisco and Medical Educator, specializing in treating infectious diseases
● Dr. Benjamin Neuman, Professor of Biology and Chief Virologist, Global Health Research Complex, Texas A&M University
● Dr. William Schaffner, Professor of Preventive Medicine and Infectious Diseases, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine
What are the origins of the EG.5 variant? Does it differ substantially from its predecessors?
Dr. Neuman: EG.5 is one of the variants that’s spreading the fastest right now. It is a child of a thing called XBB 1.9. Basically, it’s another version of Omicron. And everything that is circulating in the world right now has about 100 to 110 differences from the original version.
This variant is spreading because it has a lot of changes at the receptor binding site that is the target of most of the vaccines and of some of the most useful parts of the immune system.
Will the new vaccines recognize the new variant and be effective against it?
Dr. Neuman: When the target changes, you have to change your aim. It has been over a year since we have had an updated version of the vaccine. It’s coming slowly, but uptake has not been great. The total uptake in the US for the bivalent vaccine is only 17%.
The formulation of the new booster is supposed to be a monovalent against the XBB variant. From the studies that we have now, it looks like new variants like EG.5 are close enough that a vaccine against XBB seems to work against it pretty well. So I think it’s a good move, and I wish they’d hurry up to release it.
Hospitalization rates remain relatively stable despite the summer surge of infections. Do you expect that hospitalization rates are going to rise at some point?
Dr. Chin-Hong: There has been a slight uptick in hospitalizations, not a tsunami, not even a surge. The way I think about it is a swell. It’s kind of like a general wave coming. It doesn’t overwhelm you. You don’t get submerged into it, but you kind of ride it until it goes to the shore.
So if you look at California, for example, one year ago, we had about 4700 people hospitalized at one point. And right now we have about 890 people hospitalized. So in perspective, it’s nothing compared to even one year ago when it was 4700.
Paxlovid and Remdesivir are currently the only therapeutics we have in our arsenal to battle. But they are problematic.
Dr. Schaffner: We know that if you administer Paxlovid — particularly to people at high risk — very shortly after they are infected, we can reduce their risk of developing severe disease. But Paxlovid has limitations, as any therapy does. There are drug interactions. So if you’re taking certain medications, you have to be careful about taking Paxlovid. Or you may not be able to get it if you have kidney failure.
Remdesivir we now use very quickly once the patient is admitted to the hospital. But wouldn’t it be better if we had more therapeutic agents aimed at keeping people out of the hospital?
Minority populations and low-income communities have always been at a higher risk for hospitalization and death from Covid. With the end of the Public Health Emergency, how can we ensure that everyone gets the tests, vaccines, and therapeutics they need to stay healthy?
Dr. Chin-Hong: Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen a lot of disparities, including and particularly amongst the African American communities, both in terms of who is dying first of all and who is being hospitalized.
But then we began to address some of the root causes, which were related to access to testing and related to probably a lot of structural racism. Of course, politics played a role, but even after the new administration, those disparities still persisted.
I think one silver lining was that vaccinations increased uptake in all communities, probably given the advocacy of a lot of grassroots organizations and community-based organizations.
So what is still free, after the Public Health Emergency ended May 11?
Vaccines are still free. There’s a bridge program that’s going to probably come into effect nationally that allows people — without demonstrating ability to pay — to get them at least until the end of the year in California, and probably extended with a national bridge program.
And then if you have insurance or MediCal or MediCare, people are obligated to give you the vaccine for free without a copay because of the Affordable Care Act.