Health authorities continue to push for bivalent boosters

Nov. 24 – Like the US, Hawaii saw an early spike in cases of respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, and an intense flu season. The two respiratory viruses, along with COVID-19, pose a triple threat at holiday gatherings.

As Hawaiian families gather for Thanksgiving, health officials are asking people to pay special attention to those who are at higher risk of developing serious illnesses from infections.

This includes Kupuna aged 60 and over and those who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19 with the primary series or recently boosted.

Director of Health Dr. Elizabeth “Libby” Char said Monday on the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s “Spotlight Hawaii” that every family should be aware of the risks.

“So we don’t want to live in fear, but we also want to be reasonable,” she said. “So it’s really about how many vulnerable people I’m going to be with, and if the elders in the family have health concerns, we have to be extra careful around them.”

Char said anyone who is sick or has a runny nose or cough should stay home to avoid exposing those around them, and she hopes those gathering today will already have their COVID-19 boosters and flu shots have received.

“Please – we have booster shots – we have shots available,” Char said. “It’s free. Get your booster shots, especially if you haven’t had a shot for six months or more.”

Like the US, Hawaii has seen cases of inrespiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, and an intense flu season. The two respiratory viruses, along with COVID-19, pose a triple threat at holiday gatherings.

“Masks work great,” Char said when asked for prevention tips. “So if we’re inside and there’s a big crowd, wear your mask. If you can gather on the porch at your aunt’s house, it’s safer for everyone.”

Hawaii’s average case count, meanwhile, remains steady, with 149 per day reported by the Department of Health last week, up slightly from 142 reported on Nov. 16.

The state’s average positivity rate also edged up to 5.5% from 5.1% the previous week.

Similar to national trends, Hawaii’s latest variant report shows that the proportion of the omicron subvariant BA.5 is shrinking – from a previous 71% to 60% – while the more immune-avoidable variants BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 continue to grow. The pair accounted for 23% of variants in the state in the two weeks ended Nov. 5.

Another immune-vasive subvariant, XBB, and its child, XBB.1, were also discovered in Hawaii.

White House officials are pushing to get more of the updated bivalent COVID-19 boosters into American arms over the next six weeks.

According to the latest CDC data, only 11.3% of eligible Americans received the new booster shot. Only about 30% of higher-risk Americans ages 65 and older have received the new bivalent booster shot.

In Hawaii, more than 211,000 residents have received the bivalent booster shot, representing 14.8% of the eligible population.

All residents 5 years and older are eligible if it has been at least two months since the last dose of the primary series or previous COVID-19 booster. Char said that those recently infected can get the new boost after three months and it’s still worth getting.

At a White House news briefing on Tuesday, senior medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci, the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective.

The data overwhelmingly shows the effectiveness of the vaccines, particularly in preventing serious illness and death, Fauci said in his last White House briefing before his retirement.

“And recently published data shows that if you are actually vaccinated and up to date, compared to an unvaccinated person, there is a 14 times lower risk of dying in the recent BA.4/5 era than an unvaccinated person. He said, “and at least three times less risk of testing positive compared to the unvaccinated.”

Fauci said the coronavirus is evolving, so boosters are needed to restore the immune response.

“So we know it’s safe,” he said. “We know it’s effective. So, my message and my final message – perhaps the final message I give you from this podium – is, for your own safety and that of your family, please get your updated COVID-19 shot as soon as you are eligible to self to protect your family and your community.”