New WH coordinator not worried about BA.2 surge, says hospitalizations remain low

White House COVID-19 coordinator Ashish Jha said Sunday the U.S. can weather a surge in coronavirus infections fueled by the BA.2 variant, citing hospitalizations that remain at pandemic lows, though he acknowledged the frustration of parents who want to see a vaccine for their youngest children.

Coronavirus cases have risen by 50% over the past two weeks and average about 46,000 per day across the country even as Americans shed masks on public transportation and indoor spaces and get on with their lives.

Dr. Jha, who recently joined President Biden’s virus team, acknowledged that Americans would have been told to hunker down if the same trends popped up last year. But he said hospitalizations are at their lowest point since the start of the pandemic in March 2020 — about 15,000 right now — so he is confident that pharmaceutical interventions are helping.

“At this point, I remain confident we’re going to get through this without disruption,” Dr. Jha told CNN’s “State of the Union.”

The latest surges “mean something different because people are vaccinated and boosted,” he said. “They mean something different because we have a lot more therapeutics available.”

Roughly two-thirds of Americans are considered fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and nearly 100 million people — or 45% of the fully vaccinated — have opted for an initial booster shot.

Regulators recently approved a second booster shot for Americans over 50 years old but children under age 5 remain left in the cold. Drugmakers Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are testing shot regimens for the youngest Americans but some parents eyeing summer plans are losing patience with the process cases rise.

“I am frustrated on their behalf,” Dr. Jha said.

He said he expects drug companies to submit safety and efficacy data on vaccine dosing for kids under 5 in the coming weeks but was reluctant to give a specific time frame for authorization by the Food and Drug Administration.

“My expectation is it’s certainly going to happen in the next couple of months,” Dr. Jha said. “We really have to let them do their work. We want to be fast but we have to get it right.”

The lag in immunizing young kids is notable because Americans who can benefit from vaccination are dropping most precautions designed to stop the spread of the virus. The White House and others are pivoting to an era in which individuals gauge their own risk against the virus.

A federal judge in Florida nudged the administration to move a bit faster last week, striking down a mask mandate on public transportation even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended the expiration date from April 18 to May 3 while it studied the BA.2 variant and its impact.

Dr. Jha said he thought the CDC’s request for more time was reasonable but it will be up to the Department of Justice to appeal the decision. Some legal experts think Justice attorneys are playing for time and will try to get an appeals court to render the lower court’s ruling moot after May 3, so the CDC can say it reserves its pandemic-fighting power without risking a precedent-setting decision on the transportation mandate in higher courts.

Beyond transportation, Philadelphia officials said Friday that face coverings to control the coronavirus are no longer required within indoor public spaces — four days after the city bucked national trends by reimposing its mask mandate.

The Board of Health voted to rescind the mandate after the city’s Department of Health pointed to a 25% decrease in hospitalizations in recent days and a leveling off in cases.

Officials in Pennsylvania’s largest city said they will rely on strong warnings about future surges, instead of using the tiered system that triggered the mandate, saying the threat of reimposing the mandate seemed to improve things before the actual rule returned.

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