What’s more, the mutations in these new strains could make them more immune-evasive, Adalja says. However, even if that’s the case, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will render protections from the vaccines or a prior infection completely powerless.
The shots we’ve had access to so far have helped reduce the risk of hospitalization and death in many, regardless of the variants circulating, points out Aditya Shah, an infectious disease specialist at the Mayo Clinic. “We hope that that remains, because we don’t want to overwhelm the health care systems this winter.”
More than 3,300 Americans are still being hospitalized every day for COVID-19, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows. And with a potentially rough flu season on the horizon, health care workers are bracing for numbers to swell. (During the 2019–2020 flu season, 390,000 Americans were hospitalized with the illness, according to the CDC.) Cases of RSV (or respiratory syncytial virus, which is most dangerous in infants and older adults) also typically spike in the cold-weather months.
“We are entering into the winter months, where no matter what the respiratory disease is, there’s always a risk of an uptick in respiratory diseases,” Anthony Fauci, MD, chief medical adviser to the president, said during a recent USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism webinar.
One thing that could help subdue a storm of hospitalizations this winter: the updated COVID-19 bivalent booster shots, which are now available to vaccinated people age 12 and older. HAS recent report from the Commonwealth Fund finds that if 80 percent of eligible Americans roll up their sleeves for the shot — which targets omicron’s BA.4 and BA.5 and also the original strain of the virus for a broad swath of protection — 936,706 hospitalizations due to COVID -19 could be warned and nearly 90,000 lives could be saved.
If the booster uptake is even equivalent to recent flu vaccine uptake (about half of adults got their flu shot in 2020–2021, the latest data available shows), more than 75,000 deaths and 745,409 hospitalizations due to COVID-19 could be prevented. Still, few adults (about 4 percent) have received the new booster. About 20 percent of Americans say they aren’t even aware of them, a recent poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation finds. Older adults are the exception, with about half (45 percent) of people age 65 and older reporting they have received the updated booster or intend to get it “as soon as possible.”