British scientist James Lovelock once said, "An inefficient virus kills its host. A clever virus stays with it."
The COVID-19 pandemic has moved into its endemic stage, and most experts agree that it will be like the flu — an annual reminder that our bodies are mere biological receptors for foreign invaders. Clever indeed.
Ethnic Media Services, a media organization that connects ethnically diverse news outlets to issues and their audiences, held a roundtable discussion Friday, Aug. 11, entitled, "It's Very Clear: COVID Is Here to Stay."
EMS pulled together three doctors who are experts in the field to discuss the state of the virus today: Dr. Peter Chin-Hong of University of California, San Francisco, Dr. Benjamin Neuman of Texas A&M University, and Dr. William Schaffner from Vanderbilt School of Medicine.
"COVID is here to stay, believe it," Sandy Close, director of EMS, said at the beginning of the discussion.
Close said that COVID-19 cases are rising once again due to the emergence of a new variant, EG.5.
COVID-related hospitalization rates jumped by 12.5% nationwide from July 23 to 29 over the previous week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"EG.5 is one of the variants that's spreading the fastest right now," Neuman said. "Basically, it's another version of Omicron."
Neuman said it is particularly spreadable right now because of changes to the receptor binding site, a key part to any virus.
"That is the target of most vaccines," Neuman said. "When that target changes, you have to change your aim. It has been over a year since we probably should have had an updated version of the vaccine."
A new vaccine will be available in the fall to address EG.5, the experts said. Until then, people who are at risk for serious illness are encouraged to wear masks and avoid indoor masses of people or other congregate settings.
"I don't know that you want to go to a Taylor Swift concert," Schaffner quipped.
Though hospitalization rates are up and yes, people are still dying from COVID-19, Chin-Hong wouldn't call it a surge.
However, he provided some numbers. Last year at this time there were about 4,700 people hospitalized in California, he said. This July there were about 750, and now there are about 890 people hospitalized, he said.
The uptick can be blamed on the usual things, like more people interacting with others and waning immunity from the last booster, but the new variant is playing a role along with the weather.
Chin-Hong said heat waves can have the same effect on virus transmissions as winter does.
"Unprecedented heat waves have driven a lot of people indoors," Chin-Hong said.
Though there are still between 300 and 400 deaths due to COVID-19 per week nationally, Chin-Hong said there is some good news.
"We have a lot more tools," he said. "We're getting better tools and not as many people are seriously ill and people are having shorter stays."
One successful "tool" has been antivirals such as remdesivir, which at the height of the pandemic were reserved for the most serious cases but are now given out "as soon as somebody hits the door with COVID," Chin-Hong said.
When asked if it's worthwhile getting a booster now before the new EG.5 vaccine comes out in the fall, the experts all agreed that it should be approached on an individual basis.
"It's complicated and nuanced," Chin-Hong said. "If you're over 65 and immune-compromised and you haven't gotten your shot for a while, meaning more than six months ... you might go ahead and get it."
All three doctors said they are wearing masks in more high-risk environments. They recommend that others do too, even people who are healthy but may not want to expose more vulnerable people to the virus.
The doctors also stressed that COVID-19 boosters and vaccines remain free for everyone.
Neuman ended on a philosophical note.
"So, the moon is far away. Mars is far away. We've been to both of those," he said. "It seems like the end of COVID is far away right now. But I have to believe that with human ingenuity, we can get there. I think the biggest challenge was and is in people's hearts, convincing them not to fear the new and the newly approved, and to do everything in their power to stop this virus, because it doesn't add anything to life. It only takes it away."
To view the entire roundtable discussion, go to ethnicmediaservices.org/media-briefings/.