People who stay up to date on their vaccines and receive treatments when they have breakthrough infections face almost no risk of dying from Covid-19, a top health official said on Tuesday.
Dr. Ashish Jha, head of the White House Covid task force, said the U.S. has made major strides in fighting Covid since the early days of the pandemic when thousands of people were dying daily from the virus.
“If you are up to date with your vaccines and if you get treated if you have a breakthrough infection, your risk of dying from Covid is now close to zero,” Jha told reporters at the White House.
More than 300 people are still dying every day from Covid on average, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Jha told reporters last week that 70% of the people dying from the virus are 75 and older and don’t have the latest shots or aren’t getting treated as needed. He said this level of death is unacceptable given all the tools the U.S. now has at its disposal to manage the virus.
Jha encouraged people who have Covid symptoms to get tested so they can get diagnosed and receive treatments such as the antiviral pill Paxlovid when needed.
“Treatments which we have available today for free keep people out of the hospital, keep people out of the ICU, prevent the worst outcome at all,” Jha said.
People older than 50 and those who are otherwise at elevated risk, such as people with weak immune systems or serious medical conditions, should be seriously considered for treatments, he said.
The U.S. rolled out new booster shots that target the dominant omicron BA.5 subvariant in September. Although there’s no real-world data on their effectiveness yet, Jha said they should provide a much higher degree of protection based on what scientists know about how the human immune system works.
Health officials are expecting Covid infections to increase in November through January as they have every fall and winter since the pandemic began, Jha said. But it’s difficult to predict whether the U.S. will face another major Covid surge because the virus continues to evolve, he added.
“We are not helpless against these challenges. What happens in the weeks and months ahead will have a large impact on how the winter goes and really what happens this winter is largely up to us as the American people,” Jha said on Tuesday.
He called on everyone ages 12 and older to get their new Covid booster shot by Halloween so they have protection in time for Thanksgiving when the holiday season gets into full swing. Everyone who is eligible should go out and get their annual flu shot as well because health officials are expecting a significant flu season for the first time since the pandemic began, he said.
One caveat is people who recently caught Covid can wait three months to get their booster because infection also boosts your immunity, Jha said.
“Don’t wait — get your new flu shot and your new Covid shot today,” Jha said. “If Americans did that we could save hundreds of lives each day this winter.”