Dr. Anthony Fauci warned in an interview Wednesday that hospitalizations are increasing among fully vaccinated Americans who get breakthrough cases of COVID-19, but he stressed that unvaccinated people are still by far the most vulnerable to the disease.
“What we’re starting to see now is an uptick in hospitalizations among people who’ve been vaccinated but not boosted,” Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told NBC News. “It’s a significant proportion, but not the majority by any means.”
The doctor’s comments come amid the nation’s coronavirus vaccine booster program, which so far has targeted older Americans, those with underlying health conditions and workers in high-risk jobs, among others. The Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may decide this week to dramatically expand that booster program to tens of millions of people, allowing all adults to get an additional jab of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine six months or more after receiving their second dose.
About 31 million people have gotten a booster dose, and 195 million Americans are fully vaccinated against the virus. The booster program is meant to address studies that show waning immunity for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines about six months after a second inoculation. Those who received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot have been advised to get a booster shot two months after their initial dose.
Concerns remain about the severity of the pandemic, even with widespread vaccinations and the rollout of booster shots. Cases have been increasing nationwide over the past few weeks, and the seven-day average of new infections has risen to about 88,000 a day. The figures have worried officials, particularly as the busy winter holiday period approaches.
“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,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the head of the CDC, said in a White House briefing Wednesday. She added, however, that booster shots are working among vulnerable populations.
“When we compare rates of COVID-19 disease between those who are vaccinated with two doses and those who have received a booster dose, the rate of disease is markedly lower for those who received their booster shot, demonstrating our boosters are working.”
It’s unclear how many hospitalizations are linked to breakthrough cases among fully vaccinated Americans: The CDC did track that figure, but its website shows only data up until Aug. 28.
Fauci added during the White House briefing Friday that he didn’t believe the U.S. would ever completely eliminate new cases of COVID-19 but that federal officials wanted to gain control over the virus and accept it as an endemic ailment. When pressed to say what number of daily cases would be tolerable, Fauci said he couldn’t name a figure but that it was much lower than the current rates of new cases.
“It certainly is far, far lower than 80,000 new infections per day, and it’s far, far lower than a thousand deaths per day and tens of thousands of hospitalizations,” the doctor said. “We want to get to the lowest possible level that we can get.”