VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — As COVID-19 cases rise, health leaders are looking at new ways to try and fight the virus.
Medical experts said getting vaccinated is still a key recommendation, but now a Food and Drug Administration panel is recommending changing COVID boosters to specifically target the omicron variant.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, community transmission is at “substantial” and “high” levels across much of the country. Dr. Brooke Rossheim of the Virginia Department of Health said the omicron variant is to blame.
“We all know about the huge omicron surge that we had at the beginning of 2022. We do know from data – VDH data and CDC data - that the omicron sub-variants are the ones that are circulating," he said. “Omicron is a tricky actor and so the vaccine, in terms of looking at cases, omicron is able to get around some protection afforded by the vaccine.”
COVID-19 infections are trending upwards. Dr. Caitlin Pedati, the director of the Virginia Beach Department of Public Health, noted this includes break-through cases and reoccurring infections.
"Unfortunately, that makes sense based on what we know about COVID," she said. " We know that over time, your immune system can forget a little bit how to fight this virus, whether you learn that from being infected or from being vaccinated.”
Rossheim said the current COVID-19 vaccine is effective in preventing hospitalizations and deaths, but it’s based on the original virus strain, so a new booster aimed at fighting omicron “should be a big help” in slowing the spread.
“If you have a vaccine targeted at omicron, then you get a pretty robust immune response against omicron," he said. “The COVID response is really focused on the main public health measures that we have been doing all along, which is first and foremost, getting vaccinations out there. That is our very best defense, that is our very best offense.”
According to the FDA, this modified COVID-19 booster shot should be available this fall.
Pedati said her team continues to push vaccines as the best way to protect the community.
“COVID is not going anywhere. Unfortunately, this virus is circulating in our community but there are things we can do to bring that virus activity down," she said. “That really is the goal, right? To bring down virus activity, to protect our most vulnerable populations, people who are going to have bad outcomes, who have to go to the hospital, or who could die because of COVID.”
Rossheim added that getting vaccinated and boosted is not all we should be doing right now. He said it’s time to get back to basics and put a mask back on, depending on where you live.
“If you are in an area where the community level is high, then you want to be wearing a mask indoors. If you’re in a high community level, you want to be social distancing," he said.