School is in session, pumpkin spice is in season, and Americans are heading to drugstores for what may soon be on standby in the fall: your annual COVID shot. Tuesday, the White House announce The beginning of a “new phase” of the pandemic response, a phase in which “most Americans” receive the COVID-19 vaccine “once a year, every fall.” In other words, your pandemic booster is about to become as routine as a physical exam or — more so — a flu shot. Another health-related task has been added to your calendar, and it will likely stay there for the rest of your life.
From a certain point of view, this system makes a lot of sense. The largest increases in the epidemic so far have occurred in the winter, and a fall booster could go a long way toward mitigating those following increases. Furthermore, the new plan greatly simplifies coronavirus vaccination regimens, both for the public and for service providers. “It has been baffling in many cases to understand who qualifies for a booster, how many boosters, when, what boosters are, and how far apart they are,” Jason Schwartz, a vaccine policy expert at Yale University told me. “I think that reduced booster absorption in some really frustrating ways.” To some extent, White House COVID-19 response coordinator Ashish Jha told me, the new plan codifies the way things really work: The last time low-risk Americans eligible for another shot was last fall. (Jha said older and immunocompromised people have had their operations on a different schedule and are likely to continue to do so.)
However, some public health experts are concerned that the White House is jumping the lead. Back in April, a number of them Tell stat newsHelen Branswell was concerned that the United States would adopt such a policy without the data needed to support it. When the White House made its announcement on Tuesday, many felt their concerns were justified. “We’ve gone through twists and turns and surprises every step of the way with COVID, and the idea that we’re going to get one shot and then finish doesn’t really agree with the way things have gone in the past,” Walid Galad, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, told me. Cover up a great deal of uncertainty.
For one thing, it’s assumed that the virus will follow an annual schedule of peaks in fall and winter—not out of the question, but neither is it given. On the other hand, we still do not have a solid understanding of the magnitude or duration of benefits provided by this specific new Omicron vaccine. Glad told me that for all we know, the extra protection given to whoever gets the shot tomorrow may have largely dissipated by New Year’s Eve.
Not to mention the huge uncertainty posed by the specter of future variables. in instructions On Tuesday, Jha acknowledged that a “new, shifting curve” could change the government’s plans. But the advertisement itself contains no such warnings, which some public health experts fear could cause problems if a course correction is needed in the future. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Tennessee, tells me that for all we know, new variants may require more frequent updates, or if the viral surge slows, we may not even need annual doses.
If the routine the White House prescribes looks a lot like flu shots, it’s no accident. The ad explicitly recommends getting the COVID vaccines between Labor Day and Halloween — “just like the annual flu shot.” This comparison, though, is part of what interests critics, who fear that switching to a more flu-like framework will necessitate the adoption of A vaccine-only approach to prevent COVID. Many of the interventions that have proven effective over the past two-and-a-half years — masking, spacing, and widespread testing — have traditionally not been a major part of our flu season protocols. If we treat COVID like the flu, then the thinking goes, such interventions risk falling even more by the wayside. The advertisement, which does not mention any other preventive methods, is not so reassuring to the contrary.
But this reading, Jha told me, is “clearly wrong.” Although vaccines are “the mainstay of our strategy,” he said, testing, masking, and improving indoor air quality are all important, too. But as did my colleague Katherine Wu writtenFor some time now, the country has become more and more dependent on vaccines – and less and less on other interventions available to us. Even if you read the new policy as a renunciation of concealment, ventilation, and the like, functionally it may not be a huge departure from the status quo.
For now, Thomas said, the White House plan makes sense — as long as it remains sensitive to changing circumstances. “We keep learning new things about this virus,” he told me. “The mutation rate is changing. The prevalence in the population is changing.” And as such, he said, our response must be flexible.
The White House announcement seems like an honest attempt to balance competing priorities: on the one hand, the need to communicate uncertainty and acknowledgment of complexity; On the other hand, the need to prevent the message from being so complicated that it confuses people to the point that they tune it out completely. In this case, management appears to be taking the side of simplicity. That could be a mistake, Glad says — one that public health authorities have repeatedly made during the pandemic. “When you try to make things simple and understandable and present them without enough uncertainty, you have a problem when things change,” he told me.