Senior man in isolation at home for virus outbreak
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The next wave of COVID-19 is on its way and unvaccinated elders are at high risk of being hard-hit, according to a former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Protecting the most vulnerable now is key to avoiding a rebound in illnesses and deaths, he said.

Rising cases in Europe and Asia combined with slowing vaccinations stateside point to a coming uptick in cases in the United States, wrote Tom Frieden, M.D. in a guest essay for The New York Times, published Monday.

COVID-19 cases rates in U.S. nursing homes, meanwhile, have mirrored those in the community. They’ve dropped steadily since January, with a most recent dip from 6,100 reported during the week of Feb. 27, to about 3,800 the week of March 13, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s data tracker. COVID-19-related deaths in these settings have also declined, although 436 were recorded for the week ending Feb. 27. 

Overseas omicron surge

But omicron may turn out to be as troublesome as its delta precursor and threaten this downward trend, contends Frieden, who headed the CDC from 2009 to 2017. A new deadly outbreak in Hong Kong has shown that COVID-19 remains “ferocious” — particularly among unvaccinated older people, he explained.

“This has caused the devastating surge in deaths there and helps explain why the United States continues to report around 1,000 deaths per day, the vast majority among people not up-to-date with vaccination,” he wrote. In addition, the omicron BA.2 variant has proven to be as much as 60% more infectious than its predecessor and is gaining ground, he added.

Meanwhile, U.S. vaccination rates have slowed, masks have come off and at least 15 million U.S. seniors are not up-to-date with their COVID-19 vaccinations, he reported.

Americans must remain flexible and prepared to adapt alongside the virus, he wrote. 

Outmaneuvering the virus

“Leaders need to redouble efforts to get more Americans, particularly older adults, vaccinated and boosted,” including reaching out directly to Medicare patients, he wrote. In addition, health officials should increase access to rapid testing, and rapid treatments and medications that reduce the risk of severe illness, Friedan wrote. 

The public must do their part as well, he added.

“[P]eople who are older or immunocompromised and those around them should consider masking with a more protective N95 or equivalent mask,” he recommended.

“If we learn quickly and act quickly, we can outmaneuver the virus,” he concluded. “We could be entering the endgame for COVID. How we play it will determine what happens next.”