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New CDC director urges COVID-19 booster as cases increase

Updated booster expected to be available second week of September

The Food and Drug Administration approved the boosters one day before a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory panel is expected to discuss recommendations for who should receive the vaccines and when, with CDC Director Mandy Cohen expected to sign off shortly thereafter.
The Food and Drug Administration approved the boosters one day before a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory panel is expected to discuss recommendations for who should receive the vaccines and when, with CDC Director Mandy Cohen expected to sign off shortly thereafter. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Newly sworn-in Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Mandy Cohen is urging Americans to get updated COVID-19 shots when they become available amid an increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

But in a call with reporters Thursday, Cohen tried to keep the increase in perspective, noting that the current hospitalization level for COVID-19 is about half of what it was at this time last year.

“We are in a better place than we were last year with more immunity and more tools,” Cohen said.

[Related: Biden’s pick to lead the CDC faces tough summer on Capitol Hill]

COVID-19 hospitalizations have steadily increased over the past few weeks, reaching 15,067 for the week ending Aug. 19 — an 18.8 percent increase from the week prior, according to CDC data. But at this time last year, the U.S. averaged over 84,000 hospitalizations per week. More than 96 percent of U.S. counties are experiencing low COVID-19 hospitalization levels, at less than 10 new COVID-19 hospital admissions per 100,00 people.

But the CDC can no longer track COVID-19 cases — just hospitalizations, deaths and wastewater levels — because of decreased data tracking capabilities caused by the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency.

The latest updated COVID-19 vaccines are expected to become available in the second week of September and are tailored to the current dominant strain of the virus. Cohen said she anticipates the next booster shot to be an annual shot. Although the new shot will hit the market in time for the fall and winter respiratory virus season, it’s unlikely to have high uptake — last year, just 17 percent of eligible Americans got their free COVID-19 booster shot, per CDC data.

Meanwhile, epidemiologists are watching a new, highly mutated lineage of the virus, BA.2.86, that the World Health Organization recently dubbed a “variant under monitoring.” The variant has more mutations compared to previous omicron subvariants and may be more easily able to bypass existing immunity.

There are very few cases of BA.2.86 in the U.S. thus far, and current treatments are effective. But it’s still uncertain if the new vaccine is effective against BA.2.86, Cohen said.

“What we still need to learn more about is exactly how a vaccine that is coming out might perform in terms of effectiveness at preventing severe illness from early indications. It looks like there will be effectiveness, but again, that is something we are still learning from our scientists right now,” she said.

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