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How the White House plans to handle a winter COVID surge

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Winter is coming. And if the last two years are any indication, winter will bring along an uninvited guest - COVID. Experts expect a rise in cases as people gather indoors more in the coming months. How much of a rise may depend on the precautions people take. And after three years of pandemic life, many people are tired of taking precautions. Joining me live to talk about this is Dr. Ashish Jha. He is the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, and he's on the line from the White House. Hey there.

ASHISH JHA: Hi. Thanks for having me back.

KELLY: So let's start with good news. The good news is COVID cases are actually falling on the whole in the U.S., but the case numbers are rising in a few states. And worryingly, cases are also rising in parts of Europe, which has historically meant a spike may follow soon here in the states. Do you expect another winter COVID surge to show up soon?

JHA: It's a very good question. And as you said, Mary Louise, we've seen a surge of infections each of the last two winters. We are seeing this increase in Europe. Europe tends to fall - you know, sort of precede us by about four to six weeks. And so it stands to reason that as we get into November, December, maybe January, we are going to see an increase in infections across much of the country. And how much of one is not only dependent on precautions that people take but also on what people do in terms of getting vaccinated and protecting themselves before COVID really begins to take a bigger hold here.

KELLY: Does it also depend on the virus itself, omicron, all its subvariants? They've caused these spikes, in part because they've been so good at evading immune responses. Are there variants currently spreading that concern you?

JHA: There are. There are at least three subvariants that we're tracking very, very closely, all of which appear to have a lot more immune escape. Now, the good news about them is while they seem to do a better job of escaping immunity, they are derived from BA.5 or BA.2, its closely related cousin. And the new vaccines we have which protect you against BA.5 should really continue to work really quite well against these new variants. So we don't know all the details. We're going to - obviously, we're studying that right now; one more reason for people to go out and get this new bivalent vaccine.

KELLY: OK. Well, I was listening. I got the message. I have scheduled mine for next week, and I'm not alone. The CDC is estimating something like 13 to 15 million people have already gotten the new updated boosters. But compare that with more than 200 million adults in this country who got the initial COVID shots. It's a small fraction. What is the issue here?

JHA: Well, you know, we expected this to ramp up. So these new vaccines became available in early September, right around Labor Day. And just like the annual, you know, flu shot, which people tend to get mostly in October and November - and I think the reason is that's when the weather starts getting colder. People start thinking about the holidays, and it triggers people to sort of realize, yeah, they should probably get the flu shot before they start gathering. My sense is something similar is happening with COVID vaccines. We've seen a pickup. And my expectation is that as the rest of October goes along and as we get into November, you're going to see a lot more Americans getting this new vaccine.

KELLY: Just practical advice - is getting it now better than November, better than December? How should we time it?

JHA: Yeah. So I've been recommending to all my family and friends that they get it before Halloween. I mean, go get it now. And the reason is if you get it before Halloween, you're going to have a really high degree of protection as you get into Thanksgiving, as you get into the holidays. You know, you can't time these things too tightly. So in general, my recommendation is go get it, go get it soon, and certainly get it before Halloween.

KELLY: OK. But let me invite you to speak to all the people listening who maybe say, look, I got the original shot, maybe I even got boosted, maybe I've even had COVID, maybe I've had it more than once by now. I am over it. What do you say to them?

JHA: Yeah. I would say I understand the fatigue. You know, we are now at a point where COVID doesn't have to rule our lives. We don't have to take extraordinary precautions the way we did two years ago or even a year ago. And we're at a point where for a majority of Americans, this is now a once-a-year shot. You know, I've gotten a - I've gotten a flu shot. I'm sorry. I've gotten a flu shot yearly for 20-some odd years. It's not a big deal. I go get my flu shot every fall, and it helps protect me in the fall and winter. And we're in a similar position with COVID in terms of the vaccine, where for a majority of Americans, it's a once-a-year shot. Now, let me be very clear. For some high-risk people, I think about my elderly parents, who are in their 80s...

KELLY: Yeah.

JHA: ...They might need a shot more than once a year. They might need one again in the spring. But for a majority of people, we're at a point where once-a-year shot is - it's not that inconvenient, not that big a deal, and it's a great way to protect yourself.

KELLY: Speaking of protecting ourselves - masks. At one time, there were mask mandates all over. Once they were lifted, there was not a lot of appetite to put them back on, even as various surges swept through and wreaked havoc. Here at NPR, the mask mandate that's been in force in the newsroom all this time is being lifted in a couple weeks. I know you're going to tell me, ideally, you would love everyone to wear a mask. But as you try to balance best public advice with what people are going to be willing to do at this point, what is your guidance going into the winter?

JHA: Yeah. So my guidance - first, if you take a step back, my guidance for how do we keep ourselves healthy and safe this winter, it is a multi-pronged approach. So obviously it begins with vaccines - clearly No. 1. Beyond vaccines, I think for people...

KELLY: But on the masks - wear them, don't wear them...

JHA: Yeah, yeah.

KELLY: ...What's your guidance? Yeah.

JHA: Well, so I think - I mean, my only point here is there are other things - treatments, testing, improving indoor air quality - those all matter as well. Masks also clearly work. They become one more layer of protection. For me, the issue is not an issue of whether masks are important or not. They should be seen in that broader context of we have many layers of protection.

KELLY: Right.

JHA: And if people want to avail themselves of all of it, then they should absolutely wear a mask. But if they choose not to wear a mask, there are other things they can do to protect themselves.

KELLY: Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, thank you.

JHA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.