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This week in COVID: Biden tests positive; BA.5 dominates new cases; Novavax an option for unvaccinated

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 7/22/2022 Adrianna Rodriguez, USA TODAY
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White House officials say President Joe Biden is experiencing “very mild” symptoms after testing positive for COVID-19 Thursday.

In addition to being fully vaccinated and twice-boosted, the 79-year-old is also taking the antiviral Paxlovid to ensure he’s protected from serious illness. Biden’s doctor, Kevin O’Connor, expects the president to respond favorably to the drug, “as most maximally protected patients do.”

President Joe Biden removes his face mask as he arrives to meet with the White House COVID-19 Response Team on the latest developments related to the Omicron variant in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House Campus in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022. © Andrew Harnik, AP President Joe Biden removes his face mask as he arrives to meet with the White House COVID-19 Response Team on the latest developments related to the Omicron variant in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House Campus in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022.

In April, White House COVID-19 response coordinator Ashish Jha acknowledged Biden could catch the virus as he returned to regular activities amid high levels of community transmission in the country.

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"I wouldn't say it's just a matter of time,” Jha said. "But, of course, it is possible that the president, like any other American, could get COVID."

Since then, increased transmission has led to a rise in cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

Twenty-five states had more COVID-19 cases in the week ending Thursday compared with the week before, according to a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins University data. Hospitals in 33 states reported more COVID-19 patients than a week earlier, and 18 states reported more deaths.

Also in the news:

► BA.5 makes up nearly 80% of new cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Nowcast model. Here's what else you should know about the subvariant.

► U.S. adults who haven’t gotten any COVID-19 shots yet should consider a new option from Novavax — a more traditional kind of vaccine, health officials said Tuesday.

► The Biden administration is reorganizing the Health and Human Services department to “mobilize a coordinated national response more quickly and stably during future disasters,” according to an emailed memo shared with The Washington Post.

► Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi and the chair of the House Jan. 6 committee, has tested positive for COVID-19 days before the panel's last scheduled hearing of the summer.

📘What we're reading: They were released from prison because of COVID but their freedom didn't last long. Read more here. 

Want more? Sign up for USA TODAY's Coronavirus Watch newsletter to receive updates directly to your inbox and join our Facebook group.

Health experts expect Biden to do 'quite well' with COVID at 79

Although older people tend to have more severe disease from COVID-19 and the majority of deaths have been among those over 75, health experts agree with President Joe Biden's doctor that he will have a mild disease course. 

"I would expect him to do quite well," said Dr. Daniel Griffin, an infectious disease specialist with Pro Health Care in New York.

Vaccines and two booster shots would have reduced Biden's risk of a bad case of COVID-19 by 90%, he said, and the Paxlovid by another 90%. Plus, the president is not getting any other treatments, like steroids, that might reduce his ability to fight infection.

Experts add Biden is healthy and active and is not known to have any diseases, such as diabetes, that are associated with bad outcomes from the virus.

At this point in the pandemic, the people who end up hospitalized and dying with COVID-19, "it's not a 79-year-old who's healthy, whose weight is in check, who's active" and fully vaccinated and boosted, Griffin said. Rather, most of the hospital admissions he's seeing right now are among the unvaccinated. 

- Karen Weintraub, USA TODAY

Disparities in overdose deaths widened during COVID, study shows

Black and Indigenous people saw the highest increases in drug overdose death rates during the pandemic's first year, according to a report released Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Systemic inequities are root causes of the widening disparities, researchers said. And the pandemic exacerbated those disparities, bringing on stressors and economic instability, as well as social isolation causing many to use alone.

Among Black people, drug overdose death rates soared 44% between 2019 and 2020, and American Indian and Alaska Native people saw a 39% increase. White people saw an increase of about 22%. Overall, rates rose 30%, with illicitly manufactured fentanyl driving the overdoses, resulting in more than 91,000 deaths.

- Nada Hassanein, USA TODAY

Combining flu shot and COVID booster could increase side effects

The flu vaccine can be safely given at the same time as a COVID-19 booster, according to a new study, though about 10% of recipients reported more side effects than with the booster alone. 

Most of those side effects were mild, reported mainly on the day after vaccination and were in line with already known side effects, including fatigue, headache and muscle pain. A dozen people reported being treated at a hospital in the week after vaccination, though it's not clear whether their hospitalization was related to the shots.

The study considered more than 92,000 reports to the government's v-safe program between September 2021 and May 2022, of people who got both shots. Of those who received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, about 20% reported side effects compared with more than 26% of Moderna recipients.

- Karen Weintraub, USA TODAY

Study: Unvaccinated first responders more likely to get COVID, miss work

Unvaccinated first responders in the U.S. were less likely to believe in the vaccine’s effectiveness and more likely to develop COVID-19 compared with their vaccinated counterparts, a study found.

More than 1,400 law enforcement officers, firefighters and other first responders in Florida, Minnesota, Oregon, Texas, Utah and Arizona participated in the study, which published Tuesday in JAMA Network Open. Researchers at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine collected weekly nasal tests, recorded COVID-related symptoms, and captured first responders’ attitudes toward COVID-19 vaccines.

Unvaccinated first responders had higher rates of infections, more days of COVID-19 illness, and more hours of missed work compared with those who were vaccinated. Law enforcement officers had the lowest rate of COVID-19 vaccination, the study found. 

Investigators say the study's findings emphasize the need to create vaccination campaigns and educational materials specifically tailored to first responders and law enforcement. 

Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT. 

Health and patient safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: This week in COVID: Biden tests positive; BA.5 dominates new cases; Novavax an option for unvaccinated

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