Dr Ashish Jha on the next phase of the pandemic response
This winter, we could face both a difficult flu season and a new outbreak of COVID-19. How can manufacturers help protect workers and all Americans from illness, hospitalization or worse? White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha gave the full answer at a NAM gathering of industry leaders last week. Here’s what he had to say.
The situation today: Although COVID-19 infections and deaths are down, Jha noted that if we hold steady at today’s numbers, we’ll see 100,000 to 150,000 deaths a year, three to five times worse than the average flu season.
- However, “almost every one of these deaths is preventable,” he stressed. In fact, we are better able to fight COVID-19 than the flu because we have more effective treatments for the former.
- If we take proactive measures, Jha added, we can “reduce the number of deaths by 90%”.
What to expect: The near future is rather worrying, according to Jha. The combination of COVID-19 and the flu is expected to hit us hard this winter.
- We’ve had two consecutive seasons with “little to no flu” – largely thanks to COVID-19 mitigation measures like masking and avoiding large gatherings.
- This year, however, people have largely stopped wearing masks and are starting to gather in person again. And there’s reason to expect a surge of COVID-19 anyway, as infections have spiked over the past two winters.
- Meanwhile, there are alarming indications that this flu season will be tough. Jha noted that public health officials are watching the Southern Hemisphere during our summer (their winter) to see what our flu season might look like – and this year the Southern Hemisphere experienced an “early and robust”.
- In addition, the nursing staff are really exhausted after more than two years of the pandemic. “There is no doubt that this is potentially difficult,” concluded Jha.
What to do: As alarming as the situation may be, Jha says there is also “good news”. “We can actually control and prevent a lot of what could happen,” he said, as long as we focus on three key metrics.
Vaccines: It’s the big one. Vaccinate people against COVID-19 and flu is essential, Jha said, and new BA.5-specific COVID-19 vaccines will make a big difference.
- The United States is the first country to authorize such a vaccine, which means we now have a “vaccine that exactly matches the dominant variant” and offers much better protection for today’s environment than the original vaccines.
- Jha praised the efforts of manufacturers and NAM to encourage workers to get vaccinated and urged manufacturers to continue their efforts this season, including providing paid time off for workers who get vaccinated.
Treatment: The second essential element is treatment. As Jha explained, we have very effective treatments for COVID-19, including antivirals and monoclonal antibodies. We need to make sure people have easy access to it, through test and treatment sites and telehealth, for example. Employers can also help workers get these lifesaving treatments, he added.
- These drugs not only prevent hospitalizations and deaths, but also help people “clear the infection faster, so they feel better sooner.”
- “There is preliminary evidence that they also prevent long-term complications like long COVID,” Jha added.
Air quality: Finally, Jha cited the importance of improving air quality to combat all respiratory infections, be it COVID-19, influenza or RSV (a common respiratory virus).
- Most Americans spend 90% of their time indoors, but don’t really think about the quality of the air they breathe, he noted.
- Still, that air quality helps determine your likelihood of getting sick and even “makes a difference to your cognition,” he pointed out. Research shows that improving air quality has increased student test scores in schools and reduced worker absences.
- We can improve indoor air quality by improving filters, improving air exchange with the outside or using air purifiers, he advised.
The long term: “The virus will continue to evolve, which means we need a long-term strategy to boost people’s immunity,” Jha said.
- The next generation of vaccines – including transmission-blocking nasal vaccines and “variant-proof” vaccines – will truly put COVID-19 behind us. And we need to develop these vaccines quickly, through a partnership between government and the private sector, he said.
- Improving indoor air quality will also have a huge long-term impact, he added, as the economy loses tens of millions of dollars due to worker absences due to illness.
- “We should use this moment, with all that we have learned from this pandemic, to build a healthier society,” he said.
The last word: In closing, Jha said, “Let me end by thanking you for the incredible leadership that so many of you have shown in bringing our country as far as it is.
- “This next set of challenges is just as important as the original,” he warned. Yet when the public and private sectors work together, they “can accomplish tremendous things,” like the development and deployment of COVID-19 vaccines.
- “I hope we can continue to do this work together. And if we do, we can definitely get through this fall and winter uninterrupted, without a lot more sickness… and make our country a much better place, healthier and more productive.