Officials fret over highly infectious BA.5 as national COVID-19 hospitalizations tick upward

U.S. hospitals have seen a steady uptick in COVID-19 during the past few weeks as public health leaders warn of the now-predominant BA.5 omicron lineage and the need for continued booster vaccination.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) COVID Data Tracker released July 15, the seven-day daily average of new hospital admissions from July 6 to July 12 was 5,851—a 14.4% increase from the previous week’s average and more than 20% that of the average from two weeks ago.

Seven-day average deaths also increased 12.6% last week to 352, according to the agency.

Admissions numbers have been steadily increasing since early April and have doubled since early May. However, new admissions are still well below the peak seven-day average of more than 21,500 admissions recorded in the fall.

The agency’s ensemble forecasting models predict hospitalizations will increase over the next four weeks but could fall anywhere between 3,200 and 13,800 new daily admission reports by Aug. 5.

Still, likely undercounting and the new variant’s apparent ability to bypass much (but not all) of the resistance garnered by vaccines and infections with prior strains has experts and officials worried.

Although they’ve been hesitant to institute new requirements, officials are often recommending the public to voluntarily resume masking and similar prevention measures.

In a slew of media appearances over the last few days, White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Ashish Jha, M.D., encouraged those who were eligible for a booster to seek out a shot.

Just over half of those who were eligible for a booster have not received a booster dose, according to the CDC, while 3 in 4 of those over 50 who are eligible to receive a second booster have not done so.

Jha also acknowledged that the BA.5 subvariant is the “most contagious” and “most immune evasive variant we’ve seen” and warned the public that their protection is likely waning.

"If you were infected earlier this year, you're still at very high risk of reinfection; it means if you have not been vaccinated recently, you have a very high risk of having a breakthrough," he said in a Friday interview.

Jha also said he expects word to come “reasonably soon” regarding second booster eligibility for those under 50.

Federal health leaders and vaccine manufacturers are also focusing their efforts on a fall vaccination push specifically targeting new lineages. In late June, the Food and Drug Administration advised manufacturers to add omicron BA.4 and BA.5 spike protein components to the current compositions, with encouraging data on such a formulation coming shortly after from Moderna.

However, federal funding for these and other long-term COVID efforts remains an open question amid a lasting standoff with Congress. Barring any additional support, the White House’s COVID-19 response team has said the administration would be setting aside domestic testing, personal protective equipment supply and other efforts to prioritize another wave of vaccines.

“We’ve got to keep building new generations of vaccines,” Jha said in a Sunday interview. “We’ve got to make sure we have adequate treatments. We can get through this but … not if we take our eye off our ball; we’ve got to really stay focused.”