As befits America’s outgoing chief infectious diseases official, Anthony Fauci, used what may be his last appearance at the White House Tuesday to deliver a simple message.
“For your own safety and that of your family, please get your updated Covid-19 vaccination as soon as you are eligible,” the 81-year-old said, hammering home a public health mantra given the slow uptake of boosters.
Vaccines targeting Omicrons BA.4 and BA.5 sublines have been widely available since the summer, but so far only 11 percent of the eligible population over the age of five in the United States have received them.
To spur the case, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study showing the new shots reduced the risk of infection by about 30 percent in people who had their last dose two or three months earlier.
President Joe Biden’s COVID coordinator Ashish Jha also announced a “six-week sprint” to increase gunfire through the end of the year and mitigate the impact of an expected winter wave.
Influenza and RSV, which are rebounding after two years of containment during lockdown, are already putting a strain on healthcare systems and could get worse.
But Fauci gave a hopeful assessment of the prospects once cold weather sets in.
Between those who were vaccinated and those with previous infections, he hoped “that there is enough protection in the community that at this point we won’t see a repeat of what we saw last year”, even if newer variants emerge.
Fauci will step down next month from his government posts as senior medical adviser to Biden, as well as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which he has headed since 1984.
The medical doctor and scientist first came to prominence during the HIV-AIDS crisis and more recently led the US response to the Zika virus and Ebola.
Reflecting on his time leading America’s fight against COVID, Fauci admitted that the administration could have done a better job of conveying uncertainty early in the pandemic, when advice was rapidly changing.
But he said the hardest thing to deal with is the polarization that has fractured America along political lines.
“When I see people … not being vaccinated for reasons unrelated to public health, related to division and ideological differences, it pains me as a doctor,” he said.
“It doesn’t make any difference to me whether you’re a far-right Republican or a far-left Democrat. I see it the same way as in the emergency room in the middle of New York City.”
Referring to the spread of bad health advice online, he said “that you can counteract misinformation and disinformation by doing everything you can to provide correct information as often as possible”.
Indeed, Fauci has often had to contradict then-President Donald Trump’s unscientific COVID advice — like taking bleach to fight the virus — in clashes that helped make him a hated figure on the far right.
Republican lawmakers are expected to grill Fauci when they take control of the House of Representatives in January, but the scientist said he remained undaunted.
“We can defend and explain anything and stand by anything we said, so I have nothing to hide.”
© 2022 AFP