CDC chief opens up about misfires, 4th doses and omicron surge in long-awaited briefing

The headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is in Atlanta, Georgia on Saturday, March 14, 2020.
Enlarge / The headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is in Atlanta, Georgia on Saturday, March 14, 2020.

The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention held their first COVID-19 media briefing in more than a year on Friday. The briefing covered a wide range of topics related to the pandemic, from the increase in pediatric cases of COVID-19 to the trajectory of the omicron wave and the agency’s own missteps in communicating with the public.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky herself answered most of the questions during the approximately 35-minute conference call, as reporter after reporter expressed the need for more briefings and thanked her for being available today. ‘hui. Walensky noted that she had participated in more than 80 COVID-19 briefings hosted by the White House. However, the CDC had not given its own briefing on its work related to the pandemic since January 6, 2021.

Over the past year, the CDC has experienced periodic missteps and has come under heavy criticism for confusing messages regarding the ever-changing pandemic guidelines. The latest such episode took place last week after the agency said some people infected with COVID-19 could leave periods of isolation early without having to test negative. The agency upheld the decision, despite science-based criticism and concerns that the CDC’s decision was influenced by political interests to avoid the problem of testing shortages.

In today’s briefing, Walensky did not directly refer to the latest dusting, but said the abrupt resumption of media briefings was spurred by a recognition journalists want to hear regardless of the CDC. When pressed, she assured reporters, saying, “I anticipate this will be the first of many briefings.”

Walensky opened the briefing with a focus on recent updates to keep children safe during the current phase of the pandemic – the worst wave yet amid the surge of the ultra-communicable variant. of the omicron coronavirus. But the roughly 30-minute question-and-answer portion of the briefing covered a wide range of topics, providing useful insight into the agency’s thinking on the omicron phase. Here’s the recap of what was covered.

Children and COVID in schools

The CDC updated Thursday quarantine and isolation protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in K-12 schools, Walensky pointed out. The updates align school-specific CDC guidelines with the agency’s controversial update on quarantine and isolation protocols for the public, reducing the days to just two to five days.

That is, students, teachers and staff who test positive for COVID-19 must isolate themselves from others for at least five days. If by five days they remain asymptomatic or if symptoms go away (if they are fever-free for at least 24 hours), they can end the isolation, but they must wear a mask indoors for an additional five days. As with the general guidelines for the public, the K-12 guidelines do not require people to test negative to end isolation early.

Likewise, students, teachers and staff who are not up to date on their vaccinations should be quarantined for at least five days if they have been in close contact with someone known to be infected. People are considered “up to date” with their vaccination if they have received all of the vaccines for which they are eligible, including boosters. People up to date with their vaccinations do not need to self-quarantine after close contact with a case but must mask themselves for 10 days.

Announcing the update, Walensky acknowledged that many schools have had to revert to distance learning amid the huge wave of omicron. This update, along with other CDC advice on testing systems to stay, wearing masks, and increased ventilation, “provides the tools to reopen these schools for in-person learning and keep them open for. the rest of the school year, ”she said.

Children in hospitals

Yet Walensky acknowledged the heavy toll the current wave is taking on children, especially unvaccinated children. “Pediatric hospitalizations are at the highest rate compared to any other time in the pandemic,” she said. “Sadly, we are seeing increased hospitalization rates for children [ages] 0 to 4: Children who are not yet currently eligible for COVID-19 vaccination. “

It is still not clear how serious omicron is in children. It is also unclear whether the increase in hospitalizations simply reflects the colossal number of cases currently seen in the omicron wave or if the record number of hospitalizations reflects the relatively low vaccination rates among children.

Even for children eligible for vaccination, vaccination rates are low. For example, only 16 percent of children aged 5 to 11 are fully immunized. Walensky urged parents of eligible children to get them vaccinated and boosted as soon as possible, noting that unvaccinated 11-12-year-olds were 11 times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 than vaccinated children this age .

Vaccine updates

This week, the CDC made three new vaccination recommendations, which may have been drowned in the overflowing news cycle, Walensky noted.

  • First, the CDC approved the Food and Drug Administration’s permission to give Pfizer-BioNTech booster doses five months, rather than six, after the initial dose.
  • The CDC advisory group voted on Wednesday to expand the eligibility of booster doses to children aged 12 to 15, and the CDC approved the decision. Now, anyone aged 12 and over should receive a booster dose five months after their second dose of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
  • Finally, the CDC recommended that immunocompromised children aged 5 to 11 receive a third dose 28 days after their second injection. This age group is not yet eligible for boosters.

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