White House Sets Strategy for Omicron BA.5 Subvariant

The White House COVID-19 Team has announced its strategy to manage the Omicron BA.5 subvariant, which includes providing access to vaccines, treatments, and testing. BA.4 and BA.5, subvariants of the Omicron variant, now make up approximately 80% of COVID-19 cases in the US, with BA.5 accounting for a majority of cases, according to information from the White House.

Early indications signal that BA.5 may have some increased ability to escape immunity, including from prior infections, meaning it has the potential to cause the numbers of infections to rise in the coming weeks (as reported on July 12, 2022), according to information from the White House. This potential for increase is greatest where fewer people are up to date on their vaccinations and there is increased waning of immunity from vaccines. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that BA.5 is predicted to represent 65% of circulating variants and BA.4 16%.

To address that issue, the Biden Administration says it will continue working with state and local leaders, doctors and pediatricians, pharmacies, community health centers, long-term care facilities, employers, and community- and faith-based organizations to drive additional uptake of booster shots, particularly among those age 50 and older and other at-risk populations, including long-term care facility staff and residents.

In addition, the Biden Administration says it will continue working across the federal government, with state and local leaders, healthcare providers, as well as the public and private sectors, to take additional actions to boost access and awareness of COVID-19 treatments, particularly in areas where BA.5 is spreading. The White House says it now has three treatments that are effective against BA.5, which includes Pfizer’s Paxlovid (nirmatrelvir tablets and ritonavir tablets, co-packaged), an oral antiviral drug authorized for emergency use for treating mild-to-moderate COVID-19 in adults and pediatric patients (12 years of age and older weighing at least 40 kg), who are at high risk for progression to severe COVID-19, including hospitalization or death.

Also, the Biden Administration says it will increase access to COVID-19 testing, including, at-home COVID tests, by continuing to make them free and available. The White House said that there are currently 17 over-the-counter COVID home, rapid tests authorized for the US market, of which 16 free tests have been made available to each household since the launch of a government program, COVIDtests.gov. A third round of ordering for free COVID-19 testing was made available ahead of the summer. Additionally, private health insurers, Medicare, and all Medicaid programs are required to cover at-home COVID-19 tests for free. Health insurance plans now cover eight free tests per month per individual, which can be accessed at local pharmacies and online. In addition, there are over 15,000 federally supported free testing sites across the US.  

Other measures being taken by the Biden Administration to address the BA.5 subvariant include: (1) making masks widely available and communicating recommendations about when people should consider masking: (2) prioritizing protections for immunocompromised individuals; (3) encouraging all building owners to improve indoor ventilation; and (4) increasing communication about availability of vaccines, treatments, tests, and masks via COVID.Gov.

Source: White House (July 12, 2022, Fact Sheet) and White House COVID Response Team (July 12, 2022 Press Briefing)