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Top Biden health officials issue warning of rising covid infections

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Top Biden administration officials warned Wednesday that a third of Americans live in communities experiencing rising levels of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations and urged them to resume taking personal protective measures, including wearing of masks.

The rise in new infections — nearly 100,000 a day — comes as the nation heads into Memorial Day weekend with its large gatherings and travel. That number of cases is almost certainly an undercount, officials said, given the widespread use of home tests for which results are often not reported to health officials.

Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, strongly encouraged people living in communities designated yellow or orange, indicating that they have a large number of new infections and hospitalizations, to consider wearing masks in the indoor public spaces and to take other measures to protect themselves .

“As we are currently seeing a steady increase in cases in some parts of the country, we encourage everyone to use the menu of tools we have today to prevent new infections and serious illnesses, including wearing a mask, the test, access to early treatment if infected and getting vaccinated or boosted”, she says.

How big is the latest wave of coronavirus in the United States? Nobody really knows.

Wednesday’s warnings from Walensky and two other officials — Ashish Jha, White House coronavirus coordinator, and Anthony S. Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser — came on the same day the United States passed the grim milestone of 1 million covid-19 deaths, a toll that even the harshest predictions at the start of the pandemic in 2020 failed to anticipate.

While officials stressed that the current situation is far less severe than the winter surge of the omicron variant, they warned that the country would be ill-prepared to respond effectively in the coming months unless Congress soon earmarks billions dollars in coronavirus aid to buy a new tranche of antiviral treatments, vaccines and tests.

Walensky said the seven-day average of new infections has climbed to around 94,000 a day, a 26% increase from the previous week and a three-fold increase over the past month. Hospitalizations are also starting to rise, she said, with admissions up about 19% from the previous week, to about 3,000 a day.

Administration officials and experts said they expect a summer surge in the South as heat forces people back indoors, as has happened the previous two summers. Some experts have warned that this summer’s surge could be worse than last year’s as cases are higher than they were in May 2021.

They also warned of a possible fall and winter surge that could lead to around 1 million daily coronavirus infections, caused by omicron subvariants that have shown a remarkable ability to evade immunity. This surge could be deadly if the administration cannot buy more high-quality vaccines, antivirals, tests and masks, officials said.

“We have quite a high degree of immunity in our population,” Jha said. “But we are also seeing a lot of infections right now across the country. …which primarily drives these incredibly contagious sub-variants… with more immune evasion.

Adding to this challenge: Vaccine-boosted immunity and previous omicron infections wane within months, meaning people can be reinfected after a short time.

Moderna and Pfizer — along with its German partner, BioNTech — are working on new recalls that combine versions of the coronavirus to protect against the omicron family of variants. But it is still unclear whether these injections will be more effective than existing vaccines. Even so, officials said the administration would struggle to buy enough doses of the new vaccines without the money from Congress.

“I’m confident we’ll find the money to be able to get Americans vaccinated, maybe just [those at] the highest risk,” Jha said. “But these are not decisions we want to have to make. … I think we would see a lot of unnecessary loss of life if that were to happen.

The administration requested $22.5 billion in coronavirus relief several months ago, but a deal fell apart over differences over how to pay it. In early April, the Senate reached a $10 billion bipartisan deal, but the backlash from the Biden administration’s decision to ease pandemic restrictions at the border has put the compromise’s passage in jeopardy. Its prospects remain unclear.

The rise in cases comes as most mitigation measures, including mask mandates and capacity limits in places such as bars and restaurants, have been lifted. CDC guidelines advise implementing mask requirements as hospitalizations spike, and many counties are now meeting that threshold.

Dan Keating contributed to this report.