Dr. Fauci's final message before retirement: 'Get your updated COVID-19 shot'
- Fauci will retire at the end of December, ending four decades as the top infectious disease expert.
- The White House launched a "six-week sprint" to urge more Americans to get COVID-19 vaccine updates.
- Fauci said he would cooperate with House Republicans if they pursue investigations.
"Please for your own safety and for that of your family, get your updated COVID-19 shot as soon as you're eligible," Fauci said.
Fauci, set to step down as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and President Joe Biden's chief medical adviser, addressed reporters at the White House press briefing room for what's expected to be the final time.
His departure will conclude 54 years at the institute and 38 years as director.
"I gave it all I got for many decades," said Fauci, who has been lauded by the health community but made a top target by Republicans for restrictions he pushed to halt the spread of the coronavirus.
House Republicans, who are poised to take control of the chamber in the next Congress, have vowed to investigate Fauci as part of a slew of investigations into the Biden administration.
"If there are oversight hearings, I absolutely will cooperate fully and testify before Congress," Fauci said.
'A six-week sprint'
Ahead of Thanksgiving, when COVID-19 cases have previously spiked because of travel and cold weather, the White House launched a "six-week sprint" to encourage more Americans to get their updated COVID-19 vaccine booster shots.
The effort includes $350 million in federal funds to ramp up vaccinations at community health centers, $125 million for aging and disability networks, paid advertising and clinics at schools and universities.
White House COVID-19 coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha said for most Americans, the COVID-19 vaccine will be a "once-a-year-shot" similar to the flu. Jha said 35 million Americans (out of 225 million Americans who were considered fully vaccinated) have gotten their updated COVID-19 shots so far, including 16 million seniors.
"If folks get their updated vaccines and they get treated if they have a breakthrough infection, we can prevent essentially every COVID death in America," Jha said. "That is a remarkable fact."
As for Fauci, Jha called the retiring doctor "the most important, consequential public servant in the United States in the last half century."
The state of the COVID-19 virus has changed ahead of Thanksgiving.
The BA.5 variant of omicron, which has dominated the U.S. since early summer, is fading fast. According to data released last week, half the cases in the U.S. are now due to two descendants of BA.5, called BQ.1 and BQ.1.1.
Here's a breakdown:
What is the current COVID variant and what happened to omicron?
The omicron variant that caused so many infections last winter is still around, but it has split into many subvariants. The two subvariants – BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 – now account for half of COVID-19 cases in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
BA.5 now accounts for 24% of cases.
Are the BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 more dangerous?
Lab studies suggest the viral descendants of BA.5 and BA.2, which includes all the new dominant variants, might cause slightly more severe disease than BA.1 or the original omicron, said Jeremy Luban, a professor of molecular medicine, biochemistry and molecular biotechnology at UMass Chan Medical School.
But it's not clear whether that's true in the real world, he said, as lab studies can't capture factors like human behavior.
The new variants are clearly more transmissible because they are taking over and making people sick despite previous vaccinations and infections, he said in a Thursday news conference with other members of the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness.
Will vaccines and the bivalent booster still work against omicron variants?
"Any kind of boost really reduces your chances of getting very sick from COVID," said Dr. Kathryn Stephenson, an infectious disease expert at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
People who got the bivalent booster will be more protected against a severe COVID-19 infection compared with those who are unvaccinated or got a vaccine long ago.
In a study posted Friday, Pfizer and its vaccine partner BioNTech say that the latest booster increases the level of neutralizing antibodies against both BQ.1 and BQ.1.1, which protect against infection.
Moderna reported similar results for its booster earlier in the week, and it said last week that its bivalent shot also showed “robust neutralizing activity” against the BQ.1.1 variant, suggesting it offers some protection against the newest strains.
Can we have a COVID-free Thanksgiving? Here are some tips.
Extreme precautions are no longer needed, experts say. But Jake Lemieux, an infectious disease specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital said people should be careful if they have very young, very old or immunocompromised people at their holiday gatherings.
He proposes guests use a home COVID-19 test before sitting down together in an enclosed space and that people who are sick shouldn't go at all.
"I don't want to say 'cancel Thanksgiving,' but I also don't want to say 'don't worry about respiratory viruses,'" said Lemieux who also worries about the flu and RSV getting passed around along with the turkey.
Some things to keep in mind:
►If you develop cold symptoms, get tested for COVID-19: Take a test right away because the antiviral Paxlovid, which can help prevent severe disease in high-risk people, works only if given within five days of infection.
►If you're traveling, wear a mask: Masking while traveling to celebrations also makes sense, said Dr. Lael Yonker, a pediatrician at Massachusetts General Hospital. She's had her children wear masks leading up to the holiday.
►Get vaccinated against the flu and COVID-19: For Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, everyone must be vaccinated against the flu and boosted against COVID-19 at his family gathering. "No one wants to be a dreaded spreader," he said.
Contributing: Adrianna Rodriguez and Karen Weintraub