Health officials continue push for bivalent boosters

Nov. 24—Like the U.S., there has been an early rise in respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, cases in Hawaii, and an intense influenza season. The two respiratory viruses, along with COVID-19, present a triple threat during holiday gatherings.

As Hawaii families gather for Thanksgiving, health officials are asking folks to take extra care around those at higher risk of severe illness from infections.

That includes kupuna ages 60 and older and those who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19 with the primary series or recently boosted.

State Health Director Dr. Elizabeth "Libby " Char said during the Honolulu Star-Advertiser's "Spotlight Hawaii " on Monday that every family should look at the risks.

"So we don't want to live in fear, but we also want to be reasonable, " she said. "So it really is how many at-risk people am I going to be with, and if the elders in the family are at risk from health, then we need to be extra careful around them."

Char said anyone who is sick or experiencing sniffles or coughs should stay home to avoid exposing those around them, and she's hopeful that those gathering today have already gotten their COVID-19 boosters and flu shots.

"Please—we have booster shots—we have shots available, " said Char. "It's free. Go get your booster shot, especially if you haven't had a shot in the past six months or more."

Like the U.S., there has been an in respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, cases in Hawaii, and an intense influenza season. The two respiratory viruses, along with COVID-19, present a triple threat during holiday gatherings.

"Masks work terrifically well, " said Char when asked about prevention tips. "So if we're going to be indoors and there's a large crowd, wear your mask. If you can (gather ) at auntie's house on the lanai, that's safer for everybody."

Hawaii's average case count, meanwhile, remains steady, with 149 per day reported over the past week by the state Department of Health, up slightly from 142 reported Nov. 16.

The state's average positivity rate also ticked up slightly, to 5.5 % compared with 5.1 % the previous week.

Similar to national trends, Hawaii's latest variant report shows the proportion of omicron subvariant BA.5 shrinking—from 71 % previously to 60 %—while more immune-evasive variants BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 continue growing. The pair made up 23 % of variants in the state for the two-week period ending Nov. 5.

Another immune-evasive subvariant, XBB, and its child, XBB.1, have also been detected in Hawaii.

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

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

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

All residents ages 5 and older are eligible if it has been at least two months since the final primary series dose or previous COVID-19 booster. Char said those recently infected can get the new booster after three months have passed, and that it is still worth getting.

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

The data overwhelmingly show the effectiveness of the vaccines, particularly in preventing severe illness and deaths, Fauci said in his last White House briefing before retirement.

"And recent data that has come out indicate that if, in fact, you are vaccinated and boosted, compared to an unvaccinated person, there's a 14 times lower risk of dying in the most recent BA.4 /5 era compared to unvaccinated, " he said, "and at least a three times lower risk of testing positive compared to the unvaccinated individuals."

Fauci said the coronavirus continues to evolve, which is why boosters are needed to restore immune response.

"So, we know it's safe, " he said. "We know that it is effective. So, my message and my final message—may be the final message I give you from this podium—is that : Please, for your own safety, for that of your family, get your updated COVID-19 shot as soon as you're eligible to protect yourself, your family and your community."