Experts regret simple steps not taken before the latest COVID surge

As new Omicron variants have once again spiked hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 in recent weeks, states and cities are rethinking their responses, and the White House is stepping up efforts to do so warn the public.

Some experts said the warnings were too little, too late.

The highly transmissible BA.5 variant now accounts for 65% of cases, while its cousin BA.4 contributes another 16%. The variants have shown a remarkable ability to evade the protection offered by infection and vaccination.

“It’s long past when the warning could have been posted there,” said Dr. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, who has called BA.5 “the worst variant yet”.

Global trends for the two mutants have been evident for weeks, experts said — rapidly outperforming older variants and pushing up cases wherever they emerge. Still, Americans have shed their masks and resumed traveling and social gatherings. And they have largely ignored booster shots, which protect against the worst of COVID-19. Courts have blocked federal mask and vaccine mandates and tied the hands of US officials.


“We’re learning a lot from how the virus is behaving elsewhere, and we should apply that knowledge here,” said Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics at the University of Washington in Seattle.

White House COVID-19 Coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha, appeared on Wednesday morning television urging booster shots and renewed vigilance. But Mokdad said federal health officials need to push harder for indoor masks, early detection and prompt antiviral treatment.

“They don’t do everything they can,” Mokdad said.

The government’s challenge, according to the White House, is not its message, but people’s willingness to hear it — due to pandemic fatigue and the politicization of the virus response.

For months, the White House has been encouraging Americans to use free or cheap rapid home tests to detect the virus, as well as the free and effective antiviral drug Paxlovid, which protects against serious illness and death. On Tuesday, the White House response team urged all adults 50 and older to urgently get a refresher if they haven’t already this year – and advised people not to wait for the next generation of gunfire, which is due in the fall be expected when they can roll up their sleeves and get some protection now.


Los Angeles County, the nation’s most populous country, faces a return to a broad indoor mask mandate if current trends in hospital admissions continue, Health Director Barbara Ferrer told county authorities Tuesday.

“I recognize that if we return to universal indoor masking to reduce high spread, many will feel like a step backwards,” Ferrer said. However, she emphasized that the mask requirement “helps us reduce the risk”.

LA County has long required masks in some indoor spaces, including healthcare facilities, subways and buses, airports, prisons and homeless shelters. A universal mandate would extend the requirement to all indoor public spaces, including community offices, manufacturing facilities, warehouses, retail outlets, restaurants and bars, theaters and schools.

Sharon Fayette ripped off her mask as she stepped out of a Lyft ride in LA and groaned when told another universal mask requirement could be coming. “Oh man, when will it end?” she wondered about the pandemic.


Fayette said she was exhausted by the change in regulations and doubted most residents would comply with another mandate. “I just think people are over it, over all the rules,” she said.

The nation’s brief lull in COVID deaths has reversed. Daily deaths have been falling for the past month, although they never reached last year’s low, and deaths are now rising again.

The seven-day average of daily deaths in the US rose 26% over the past two weeks to 489 on July 12.

The coronavirus isn’t killing nearly as many as it did last fall and winter, and experts don’t expect deaths to return to those levels any time soon. But hundreds of daily deaths from a respiratory illness in the summer would normally be staggering, said Andrew Noymer, a public health professor at the University of California, Irvine. He noted that 46 people died from COVID-19 in Orange County, California, in June.

“That would be all hands on deck,” said Noymer. “People would say, ‘There’s this crazy new flu killing people in June.'”


Instead, simple, tried and tested precautions are not taken. Vaccination, including booster shots for those who are eligible, reduces the risk of hospitalization and death – even against the latest variants. But fewer than half of all eligible US adults have received a single booster shot, and only about 1 in 4 Americans age 50 and older who are eligible for a second booster shot have received one.

“This was a botched booster campaign,” Topol said, noting that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still uses the term “fully vaccinated” for people with two shots from either Moderna or Pfizer. “They didn’t get across that two shots is totally insufficient,” he said.

Noymer said that if he were in charge of the nation’s COVID response, he would measure up to the American people to get their attention in this third year of the pandemic. He told Americans to take it seriously, mask up indoors and “until we get better vaccines, there will be a new normal of a disease that kills over 100,000 Americans annually and impacts life expectancy.”


That message would probably not get out for political reasons, Noymer acknowledged.

It also may not fly with people tired of taking precautions after more than two years of the pandemic. Valerie Walker of New Hope, Pennsylvania, is aware of the recent surge but is hardly concerned.

“I was definitely concerned at the time,” she said of the early days of the pandemic, with images of body bags on nightly newscasts. “Now there is fatigue, things have gotten better and there has been a vaccine. So I would say on a scale of one to ten I’m probably a four.”

Even with two friends who have now contracted the virus and her husband who has recently recovered, Walker says she has bigger issues.

“Sometimes when I think about it, I still put on a mask when I go into a store, but honestly it’s not a daily thought for me,” she said.


Associated Press writers Christopher Weber in Los Angeles, Bobby Caina Calvan in New York, and Zeke Miller in Washington contributed.



The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Sarah Y. Kim

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