With a first-of-its-kind antiviral pill against Covid-19 potentially headed towards distribution, the health care community may soon have another tool to combat a virus that has claimed the lives of more than 700,000 Americans.
Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics created an antiviral pill the companies say can reduce risk of Covid-19 hospitalization and death by 50%, and Merck said it will seek emergency use authorization from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for its molnupiravir medication “as soon as possible.”
“We’ll be able to prescribe this to folks. They’ll take a five-day course and hopefully be able to stay home, not come in for an intravenous infusion and keep folks out of the hospital. So, it’s really very promising news,” Dr. Jonathan Reiner, CNN medical analyst and professor of medicine and surgery at George Washington University, told CNN’s Pamela Brown Saturday.
But the best strategy for fighting the pandemic – full immunization – is still hampered due to resistance, Reiner noted, and a substantial number of Americans have died since late February, when vaccine access expanded.
“We’ve lost 700,000 Americans now and fully 200,000 of those folks have died since vaccines have been available almost to everyone in this country, and every one of those deaths is unnecessary,” he said. “So even though the news is great for this antiviral agent, really the message that people need to receive is ‘get vaccinated.’ No one needs to die from this virus.”
As progress slowly moves forward nationwide with the rate of inoculations, tens of millions of unvaccinated Americans remain at higher risk for Covid-19.
Nearly 56% of the total US population, or 65.4% of those ages 12 and up who are eligible, are fully vaccinated, according to data published Sunday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
However, fifteen states have yet to fully vaccinate more than half of their residents, according to CDC data: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wyoming.
While much of the focus from health experts and officials remains on new inoculations that will help lower hospitalization rates, booster shots for some people previously fully vaccinated with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine are gaining traction, with about 5.3 million people who have received an additional dose – or booster – since August 13, CDC data shows.
People ages 65 and older, people at high risk of severe disease and people whose jobs put them at risk of infection may get an additional dose.
Appearing on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday morning, Dr. Anthony Fauci addressed people who remain hesitant about the vaccines, believing they are too new, saying, “This vaccine has been given to hundreds of millions of people … throughout the world, so although it is ‘new,’ there is a lot of experience with this vaccine.”
“It’s within our capability to make sure that that turnaround we’re seeing … continues to go down,” he said of the country finally turning a corner in the pandemic. “We can do that, really, by getting vaccinated.”
Covid-19 mitigation efforts continue to help children
While the Delta variant has contributed to more Covid-19 infections in children compared to earlier in the pandemic, recent studies show certain mitigation measures are still effective tools in lowering infections – underscoring the importance of these strategies while children under the age of 12 remain ineligible to receive a Covid-19 vaccine.
Covid-19 protocols at summer camps kept many from contracting Covid-19, and outbreaks increased when those safety measures weren’t taken, according to two studies published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on Friday.
One study compared the number of infections at camps in Louisiana since 2020 and saw a 31-fold increase in cases from last year to this year.
Last year, there were only two outbreaks in the camps studied in Louisiana. There were no vaccines then, but there was a mask mandate in place and camps used other mitigation measures, as well. This year, the camps saw 28 outbreaks that involved 321 cases among 2,988 campers and staff.
While there was a vaccine this year, the difference may have been that Louisiana dropped its mask mandate and “apparent underutilization of preventative measures,” one report said. The Delta variant was also in wide circulation in the state in 2021.
Measures including “vaccination of all eligible adults and adolescents, wearing masks indoors, regular screening testing, physical distancing and cohorting, and increasing ventilation can help prevent transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in settings with youths who cannot be vaccinated,” the study said.
A second study looked at the number of infections among more than 7,000 campers and staff members in several states from June to August this year. The camps used multiple prevention strategies including masks, regular testing, podding, physical distancing and hand hygiene, and had a 93% vaccination rate among those who were eligible.
The camps had only nine Covid-19 cases, the study found, and there were no secondary infections.
“These findings highlight important guiding principles for school and youth-based Covid-19 prevention protocols,” the study said.
A Covid-19 vaccine for children between the ages of 5 and 11 could be on the way. The FDA’s advisory committee is scheduled to meet October 26 to discuss whether it will recommend Pfizer’s vaccine for that age group.
However, according to a new poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, only about a third of parents say they will vaccinate their child as soon as a vaccine is available. KFF noted the bulk of interviews were done before Pfizer announced clinical trials showed the vaccine was safe and generated an immune response.
On Sunday, Fauci warned while a child might have less of a chance of having a severe outcome from a case of Covid-19, it is not a “benign situation.”
“We are seeing now, very clearly, if you go to pediatric hospitals, that although this risk is less than an adult, there are children in hospital who are getting seriously ill,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” There is also the risk of long Covid, where some survivors suffer lingering symptoms for months after getting infected.
“You want to protect your child, but you also want to make the child a part of the solution, mainly so that there’s not the spread of infection, either within your household or to other vulnerable people,” he said, adding it is a “very positive, good thing to get their children vaccinated.”
People with disabilities had more issues accessing vaccines, study finds
While vaccine hesitancy remains a significant barrier in curbing the pandemic, access for some has also been an issue, even if they want the vaccine.
People with a disability in the US were less likely than those without disabilities to be vaccinated against Covid-19, even though they report less hesitancy and are disproportionately vulnerable to hospitalization or death from Covid-19, according to a new analysis.
People with a disability aren’t any more hesitant to get a Covid-19 vaccine than those without a disability and were more often likely to report they would “definitely” get vaccinated. However, they reported more issues in accessing the vaccine, the analysis published in the CDC’s weekly report suggests.
Of those who reported difficulties, they had the hardest time getting an appointment online. They also reported having a hard time getting to a vaccination site. Other obstacles included hours at vaccination sites that didn’t work with their schedules, and not knowing where to get the vaccine.
“Reducing barriers to scheduling and making vaccination sites more accessible might improve vaccination coverage among persons with disabilities,” the report said.
Among more than 56,000 people who responded in CDC phone interviews from the end of May until the end of June, about 5,000 reported having some form of disability. Earlier studies suggest a higher number of people have at least one disability – about 15% of American adults. A disability in this case included anyone who said they had difficulty in seeing, hearing, walking, remembering, making decisions or communicating.
People with disabilities are more vulnerable to Covid-19, in part because they are likely to have a chronic condition that can make Covid-19 severe and are more likely to have health care access issues.
CNN’s Dakin Andone, Jen Christensen, Shawn Nottingham, Melissa Alonso and Aya Elamroussi contributed to this report.