COVID-19 cases continue rise as new vaccine awaits approval

More people are landing in Georgia hospitals with COVID-19, even as the country is waiting for an updated vaccine to arrive — possibly as soon as next week.

The FDA’s vaccine advisors are expected to issue a decision on the booster shot early next week. If they give approval, the Centers for Disease Control will come with recommendations of who should get the shots and how they should be used. The CDC’s vaccine advisory panel will meet on Tuesday. The final nod needed will come from CDC Director Dr. Mandy Cohen, who could sign off on the boosters shortly after the meeting.

After that, it’s expected to be just a matter of days until the vaccine lands in pharmacies and doctor’s offices.

Some have been eagerly awaiting the updated vaccine, which will replace the current vaccine, approved in 2022. That vaccine was designed around virus variants circulating at that time, but has remained effective against newer incarnations of the shape-shifting virus.

The number of people hospitalized in the state began rising July 1 and has continued a steady climb each week. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for the week ending Aug. 26, there were 772 new hospitalizations, up 24% from the prior week. Nationally, COVID hospital admissions for the same period were up 16% to 17,418.

For now, no one seems immune. Jill Biden, the first lady, tested positive for COVID according to an announcement by the White House late Monday night. According to the report, she was going to spend the week apart from President Biden after experiencing only mild symptoms.

And CDC Director Dr. Mandy Cohen, speaking at an event at the Atlanta Press Club Wednesday, wore a mask throughout the program, except when she was distanced six feet away from a reporter. Cohen said she was masking because she had close contact with a person who later tested positive for COVID.

While Cohen tested negative after taking a rapid test Wednesday morning, she pointed to CDC guidance recommends that those who come in close contact with someone who tests positive to mask for 10 days to make sure they don’t unknowingly spread the disease.

“COVID is here with us. We are going to have to continue to live with it,” Cohen said. “We just need to use the tools that we have to continue to protect ourselves and those that are around us. That’s what I’m doing today.”

According to the CDC, updated COVID vaccines are still expected to arrive in mid-September. “We anticipate distribution will be steady and increasing in the weeks following CDC’s recommendation,” the agency said.

The new vaccine was designed to target the XBB.1.5 variant, which predominated in the spring, but now represents only 3% of COVID cases in the U.S. Because it’s similar to the other variants in circulation now, the vaccine is expected to still be effective.

Concerns that a brand-new and highly mutated version of the virus might not be covered by the vaccine were somewhat quieted Wednesday. Vaccine manufacturer Moderna reported its clinical trials have confirmed its updated COVID vaccine will generate a strong immune response against variant BA.2.86.

Most widely circulating omicron variants feature a small handful of mutations that make each one slightly different from the last. But BA.2.86 features at least 30 mutations that separate it from other omicron strains — potentially giving the virus greater infectivity by being able to dodge a person’s existing immunity from vaccines and previous infections.

The new variant has generated intense monitoring by scientists and public health experts, even though it is still rare in the U.S.

The CDC is publishing weekly updates on the variant as monitoring of its spread continues. As of Sept. 8, the variant had been identified in at least nine states in the U.S. in samples from either people or wastewater.

The CDC said Wednesday it has not accelerated the fall vaccination campaign due to the emergence and potential risk of BA.2.86. “The current increases in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the United States are not being driven by BA.2.86 and instead are being caused by other predominantly circulating viruses,” the agency stated.

Dr. Scott Roberts, a Yale Medicine infectious diseases specialist said recently that the new booster won’t be an exact match for the variant that now accounts for the largest share of COVID cases in Georgia and the U.S. — an omicron offshoot known as EG.5 that accounts for an estimated 22% of cases nationally. But, the vaccine formula, while designed earlier this year to match a different omicron variant, is still expected to be effective against newer variants, he said.

The coronavirus has proven slippery to pin down, throwing out a rogue’s gallery of mutations that makes it hard to know where to aim the next vaccine.

“The two strains, EG.5 and XBB.1.5, are not identical, but they’re pretty close,” said Roberts said in an article published on Yale Medicine news, “My strong suspicion is that, given the genetic similarities, there will still be a good degree of protection from the booster.”

Reporters Helena Oliviero and Donovan Thomas contributed to this report

    Empty vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. (Elizabeth Robertson/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

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    Doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine and vaccination record cards await patients at UW Medical Center - Roosevelt on June 21, 2022, in Seattle. (David Ryder/Getty Images/TNS)

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