Biden health officials warn of substantial increase in Covid-19 cases

More than 32 per cent of Americans now live in counties with medium to high levels of virus transmission. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Federal health officials on Wednesday (May 18) warned that one-third of Americans live in areas where the threat of Covid-19 is now so high that they should consider wearing a mask in indoor public settings.

They cited new data showing a substantial jump in both the spread of the coronavirus and hospitalisations over the past week.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, said that the seven-day average of hospital admissions from Covid-19 rose 19 per cent over the previous week. About 3,000 people a day were now being admitted with Covid-19, she said, although death rates, a lagging indicator, remain low.

More than 32 per cent of Americans now live in counties with medium to high levels of virus transmission, compared with about 24 per cent the previous week. Walensky said that local leaders and individuals should adopt - or at least consider - prevention strategies, such as masking in indoor public settings and more frequent testing.

The warnings from Walensky and other federal health officials seemed somewhat at odds with President Joe Biden's own stance. The attitude in the West Wing more closely mirrors that of most Americans, who have eagerly moved away from mask-wearing and other strategies to prevent infection.

The president's stance could backfire if the virus's latest surge continues to build, evading the vaccines and making more people seriously ill.

If the pandemic appears to be a lesser concern, experts argue, that also makes it harder for the White House to make the case that it needs tens of billions in new funding from Congress to replenish its supply of tests, treatments and vaccines in time for autumn. The administration has said it wants to launch a booster campaign at that point, hopefully with vaccines retooled to work better against the latest version of the virus.

At the White House briefing, Dr. Ashish Jha, the new White House coordinator of the pandemic response, warned that if Congress fails to grant the administration's request for US$22 billion (S$30 billion) in new Covid-19 funding, Americans will suffer come autumn.

Officials also warned at the briefing that far too many Americans are failing to take advantage of booster shots to bolster waning protection against infection, leaving themselves vulnerable to the coronavirus's ever more contagious incarnations. Walensky said 62 per cent of those aged 50 to 64 have not received a booster in the past six months, nor have 57 per cent of those 65 or older.

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