While the pandemic is still far from over — the number of newcases are averaging more than 100,000 a day this week — the latest surge "feels different" than previous upticks, especially because of vaccines and the antiviral pill Paxlovid, the Biden administration's top official said Wednesday.
Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, joined "CBS Mornings" to discuss the state of the pandemic and offer some advice to co-host Gayle King, who tested positive for the virus Monday and is isolating at home.
He said the current rise in new cases is different because not as many people are ending up in the hospital or dying from the virus. The seven-day average of new COVID hospitalizations is just over 28,000 this week, down from nearly 160,000 in January, according to data from Johns Hopkins University's Coronavirus Resource Center.
"We've got lots of people vaccinated and boosted. That's making a big difference," Jha said. "Then, we've done a lot of work to try to get Paxlovid out there. This is the oral pill that makes a big difference keeping people out of the hospital. I do think that that is what's really keeping serious illness low."
King, who is vaccinated and boosted, said she was surprised to test positive because she's always tried to be careful. Jha described her case as a "success story," noting that she would likely not get severe symptoms.
"This is a very, very contagious virus. People are going to get it. It's going to be hard for people to stay away from it," he said.
Jha's interview follows two encouraging vaccine developments. On Wednesday, Moderna announced results suggesting a modified version of its COVID vaccine is more effective than the one currently available. The company hopes to submit that data to regulators in the weeks ahead.
On Tuesday, a panel of independent Food and Drug Administration vaccine experts voted to recommend approval of yet another COVID vaccine — one developed by American biotech company. The FDA could decide as early as this week whether to grant "emergency use authorization" for the shots.
Jha urged King and other COVID patients to talk to their doctors about.
"In general, I believe that more and more people should be getting this oral antiviral pill," he said. "I think it makes a really big difference in keeping people from getting particularly sick."
Despite the availability of vaccines and treatments, Jha said it's still too early to think about COVID like we do the flu.
"First of all, the number of infections out there, we don't ever have the flu where like we get hundreds of thousands of people getting infected. This is a lot of infections. We've still got to work on that," he said.
"Second, we are taking a very active, aggressive approach to keeping hospitalizations down. If we let up on vaccinations, if we let up on treatments, those hospitalizations are going to start climbing back up again," he said. "We're in a battle, we're fighting hard and keeping things at bay. It's not time to let up and say, 'OK, this is as good as it gets.'"
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