WASHINGTON - Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases, echoed the importance of COVID-19 vaccine boosters following reports of an uptick in hospitalizations among people who have been inoculated.
Speaking in an interview with NBC News, Fauci expressed concern over the number of fully vaccinated individuals who have not received a booster shot and have been hospitalized.
"What we’re starting to see now is an uptick in hospitalizations among people who’ve been vaccinated but not boosted," Fauci said Tuesday. "It’s a significant proportion, but not the majority by any means."
The following day, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned of a decline in vaccine efficacy among the elderly.
"Although the highest risk are those people who are unvaccinated, we are seeing an increase in emergency department visits among adults 65 and older, which are now again higher than they are for younger age groups," Walensky said Wednesday at a White House COVID-19 press briefing.
Walensky pointed out that rates of COVID-19 infections between people who are vaccinated with the initial doses and those who received boosters are notable.
"The rate of disease is markedly lower for those who received their booster shot, demonstrating our boosters are working," she said.
"Studies show that those who are unvaccinated continue to be more likely to be infected, more likely to be in the hospital and more likely to have severe complications from COVID-19," Walensky added.
Speaking at the same White House briefing, Fauci said that COVID-19 is not yet at the level of being reduced to an endemic illness, despite increased efforts to vaccinate as many people as possible and that includes getting people to get a booster shot to improve the chances of effectiveness.
Fauci said he doesn’t believe COVID-19 will ultimately be eradicated, but he feels confident that vaccination is the best tool to eliminate the disease from a particular region.
"We’ve eliminated diseases by vaccination, like polio in the United States, as it exists in other places. We’ve eliminated measles in the United States; it exists in other places. We’ve eliminated malaria years and years ago, but it exists in other places," Fauci said.
Fauci added that while it won’t be anytime soon when COVID-19 completely disappears from the world, the goal is to reduce its spread to a level where it does not dominate normal life.
"So, I don’t think we’re going to eliminate it completely. We want control. And I think the confusion is: At what level of control are you going to accept it in its endemicity? And as far as we’re concerned, we don’t know really what that number is, but we will know it when we get there," Fauci said.
Fauci added that vaccination rates have helped, but the U.S. daily case and death rate is still far too high for the country to be anywhere near endemic status.
"It certainly is far, far lower than 80,000 new infections per day, and it’s far, far lower than 1,000 deaths per day and tens of thousands of hospitalizations," Fauci added.
Fauci’s call for continued vaccinations comes amid uncertainty ahead of a winter season that some medical experts worry could bring another surge of the novel coronavirus that could disrupt months of progress.
There is currently a worsening outlook in the Midwest as booster shots are being made available to everyone in a growing number of locations. Some Michigan schools are keeping students at home ahead of Thanksgiving while military personnel are sending medical teams to Minnesota to relieve hospital staff overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients.
Massachusetts and Utah became the latest to say anyone 18 or older can roll up a sleeve for booster shots, and an advisory committee for the CDC is meeting Friday to discuss expanding boosters.
Cold weather states are dominating the fresh wave of cases over the last seven days, including New Hampshire, North Dakota and Wisconsin, according to federal data. But the Southwest had trouble spots, too, with more than 90% of inpatient hospital beds occupied in Arizona.
In Detroit, where only 35% of eligible residents were fully vaccinated, the school district said it would switch to online learning on Fridays in December because of rising COVID-19 cases, a need to clean buildings and a timeout for "mental health relief." One high school has changed to all online learning until Nov. 29.
The U.S. is now averaging nearly 87,000 new coronavirus cases per day, up from 72,000 two weeks ago, and hospitalizations are starting to increase again after steadily falling since the peak of the summer delta variant surge. The country is still averaging more than 1,100 deaths a day, and the number of Americans to die from COVID-19 now stands at 768,000.
About 59% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, or about 195 million Americans. The government and health officials are urging more people to get vaccinated, especially the 60 million people who have yet to receive a first dose.
The Associated Press contributed to this story. It was reported from Los Angeles.