The White House is pitching COVID-19 boosters as an annual vaccination, and is planning outreach to vulnerable groups such as nursing home residents who may require more protection, top health officials say.
With the advent of newly authorized, bivalent COVID-19 vaccines, the United States has caught up with the SARS-CoV-2 virus for the first time since December 2020, said White House COVID-19 response coordinator Ashish Jha, MD, in a Tuesday White House press briefing.
With the capability to address the latest variants at hand, COVID-19 vaccination should now be seen as a yearly go-to for preventing the disease, he and his colleagues said.
“[I]n the absence of a dramatically different variant, we likely are moving towards a path with a vaccination cadence similar to that of the annual influenza vaccine, with annual, updated COVID-19 shots matched to the currently circulating strains for most of the population,” explained Anthony Fauci, MD, the White House’s chief medical adviser.
But health officials will also take “targeted actions to reach those at the highest risk to ensure we’re meeting those individuals where they are,” Jha said.
“We will put special efforts to reach older Americans, those living in congregate care settings like nursing homes, and others who are particularly vulnerable,” Jha noted. “We will ensure in this administration that they get whatever protection they need.”
The new push toward annual vaccination comes as COVID-19 hospitalization rates in older adults continue to increase relative to other age groups. More than 63% of hospitalizations were in adults aged 60 years and older for the week of Sept. 3, for example, and about 46% of hospitalizations were in those 70 and older, officials noted.
A recent study has shown that if the annual COVID-19 vaccine uptake rate is similar to that of flu vaccine uptake, the U.S. could avert over 100,000 COVID-19-related hospitalizations and 9,000 deaths, added Rochelle Walensky, MD, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dovetailing with flu season
The Department of Health and Human Services plans to ramp up education and outreach efforts regarding the new booster and annual COVID-19 shots as it heads into October. During the fall season, it expects more people to get their updated COVID-19 shots “potentially together with their flu shot,” said Secretary Xavier Becerra. The COVID-19 vaccination can be given concurrently with an influenza shot, officials noted.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services will reach out to the more than 16 million people via Medicare emails and through community groups to share information on the updated vaccines, including when and how to get them.
The United States is heading into fall prepared, Jha said. “We have a matched vaccine. We have great treatments that save lives. We have widespread availability of testing. And we have been working diligently with organizations around the country … to make large improvements in indoor air quality that many, many places … have invested in.”
“[W]e are at a point where in most instances we can prevent serious illness and death, we can keep businesses and schools open and running, and we can get people back to a more normal set of routines,” he concluded.