Top Virus Expert Says This Makes a "Big Difference" in Preventing Severe COVID

There's a reason the current COVID wave has produced fewer deaths.

It's been more than two years since the COVID pandemic first slowed the U.S. to a standstill. We've come a long way since then, and for many people, life has largely returned to normal. But the coronavirus is still very much with us. According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), infections are increasing across the country right now, with an average of more than 100,000 new COVID cases being reported every single day.

At the same time, there are some notable changes to what we've seen earlier in the pandemic, including a decline in hospitalizations. One top virus expert just revealed there is likely one measure that is making a "big difference" in protecting Americans against severe COVID. Read on to find out what could play a major role in keeping you safe.

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Hospitalizations are lower now than they have been during other COVID waves.

Doctor in protective suit diagnosing COVID patient on bed in hospital

COVID is still spreading at high rates in many parts of the country. But unlike prior waves we've seen throughout the pandemic, COVID hospitalizations and deaths aren't as high as they usually are following a rise in infections. During a May interview with Foreign Policy, top White House COVID adviser Anthony Fauci, MD, noted that while cases are increasing, "they're not associated with a concomitant increase in hospitalizations or the utilization of intensive care unit beds."

According to data from Johns Hopkins University's Coronavirus Resource Center, the seven-day average of new COVID hospitalizations is 28,000 for the first week of June—which is a substantial difference from the weekly average of nearly 160,000 hospitalizations in January during the initial Omicron surge. "Our numbers of deaths per day are down to one-tenth of what they were, [and] we have many less hospitalizations," Fauci told Foreign Policy.

A top virus expert says there is a new measure making a world of difference.

pharmacist filling prescription

During a June 8 interview on CBS Mornings, White House COVID response coordinator Ashish Jha, MD, discussed the current COVID situation and how people might better protect themselves from getting severely sick now. According to the infectious disease expert, this latest surge "feels different" than previous waves largely because of one new measure: Pfizer's antiviral pill Paxlovid.

"We've done a lot of work to try to get Paxlovid out there," Jha said. "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."

Jha told host Gayle King—who was just diagnosed with a breakthrough COVID case on June 6—that he urges her and other COVID patients to talk to their doctors about Paxlovid. "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."

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There are still too many infections happening in the U.S. right now.

A woman sitting in her car getting her nose swabbed as part of a COVID-19 test

This hardly means we're in the clear, however. Jha told King that it is not surprising she was infected with COVID despite being vaccinated and boosted—and her efforts to be careful. "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 explained.

With that in mind, we should not be ignoring the large number of COVID cases happening around the country right now. With an average of more than 100,000 daily new cases, Jha warned that it's still too early to compare the coronavirus to a less concerning yearly virus like 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," he noted. "This is a lot of infections. We've still got to work on that."

Hospitalizations could go back up if we're not careful.

worried healthcare doctor at hospital

According to Jha, having "lots of people vaccinated and boosted" is also making a big difference in the battle against severe COVID alongside Paxlovid. According to the CDC, 221.4 million people in the U.S. have been fully vaccinated so far, and of those, 103.5 million people have received a booster dose.

But a rise in hospitalizations could be right around the corner if we don't keep up with these protective measures. "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," Jha warned. "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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