Vice President Kamala Harris is the latest high-ranking government official to test positive for COVID-19. She is reportedly asymptomatic and working from home. The infection was detected Tuesday, as part of routine screening. Harris is vaccinated and twice boosted.
Meanwhile, the CDC reports 58% of the U.S. population overall and more than 75% of younger children have been infected with the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic. These previous infections offer some level of immunity, meaning people who may contract the virus again are more likely to have mild to no symptoms.
Likewise, more than 66% of the U.S. population is vaccinated, meaning most Americans have some level of immunity through vaccination, previous infection, or both.
Due to the increased immunity nationwide, many public health experts recommend changing the way we measure the severity of COVID-19 surges. They say unlike earlier in the pandemic, now it makes more sense to focus on the number of people being hospitalized for COVID, rather than paying so much attention to how many people merely have tested positive.
The discussion began in earnest earlier this month following alarming media reports after dozens of government officials tested positive, including 82-year-old House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was pictured kissing 77-year-old President Biden on the cheek. Then information indicated the media blast was a bit overblown, as those infected had only mild or asymptomatic cases.
Brian Martin, Ph.D., MBA, Professor and Associate Dean for Administration in the School of Health Professions at Eastern Virginia Medical School, told CBN News the D.C. cases would likely never have been caught had it not been for routine testing protocols.
"Nancy Pelosi, for example, they're tested maybe even on a daily basis and those tests are reported out," he explained.
Dr. Martin said while reported cases are currently increasing, the true number is likely much higher.
"There's a lot of home test kits," he explained, "So none of that gets reported. If you do a home test you don't call your local health department and say 'Hey, I tested positive for COVID' so they now have that case. There are also asymptomatic people in the community that are positive for COVID and don't know it."
Dr. Martin points out, however, that many people who are currently being infected already have some level of immunity and therefore have mild or asymptomatic cases. He said many may even mistake COVID-19 for springtime allergies.
Another sign COVID infections are milder is the fact that hospitalization nationwide is at its lowest level since the beginning of the pandemic. For example, Sentara Healthcare, which operates 12 hospitals across Virginia and North Carolina, only treated 13 people for cases of COVID-19 this past weekend, reporting on Facebook, "Five of the 12 hospitals had zero COVID-19 patients!"
While paying attention to rising case numbers made sense in the early days of the pandemic, focusing on infections alone can now be misleading, making the threat appear worse than it really is.
New White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha told ABC News, "We should look at cases. That should be one of the factors. But we should also be looking at hospitalizations, obviously, because that matters more. And then we should be looking at hospital capacity."
Medical experts are hopeful hospitalizations will remain low, adding that in addition to the higher level of immunity, new treatments are becoming more widely available. Tuesday the Biden administration announced Paxlovid, the prescription antiviral pill developed by Pfizer, which studies show reduces the risk of serious disease 90% if taken within 24 to 48 hours of symptom onset will be available at 40,000 locations such as pharmacies, over the coming weeks. That's double the number of sites where the pills are currently available.
The drug is generally recommended for people at high risk for serious infection, although health experts say doctors have flexibility with their prescription parameters. For example, Vice President Harris is reportedly taking Paxlovid because she is over age 50, even though she reportedly has no other risk factors and is asymptomatic.