Presidential positive case, new variant, more vaccine options: local expert answers recent COVID-19 questions

MADISON, Wis. – In the wake of a presidential COVID-19 diagnosis, a new federally approved vaccine, and the rise in cases from a new variant, News 3 Now touched base with an infectious disease epidemiologist to answer questions concerning the latest COVID-19 information. 

On Thursday, President Joe Biden tested positive for COVID-19.  White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden has begun taking Paxlovid, an antiviral drug designed to reduce the severity of the disease. 

RELATED: Biden tests positive for COVID-19, has ‘very mild symptoms’

Ajay Sethi is the director of the Master of Public Health program at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. He says that is an option that Wisconsinites can take up as well, especially in situations for people who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19. 

“It can be hard to get as you navigate health insurance companies if you haven’t been in touch with your doctor for a while, or if you don’t have a primary care doctor, you might have some challenges to getting Paxlovid,” said Sethi. “But it is available. There are also some pharmacies where you can test and then they will give you a prescription for Paxlovid quickly.”

The President’s COVID-19 diagnosis comes just days after federal health authorities cleared the use of the new Novavax vaccine. 

Sethi says the science behind this new vaccine might be good news for those who were against the methods used for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. 

“One of the reasons people are skeptical of getting vaccinated is because of the newer technology that was used in development of the RNA vaccines,” said Sethi.”I think it’s nice that there is this new option, and people ought to consider it if that RNA option was just not sitting well with them.”

The president’s positive COVID-19 test and a new vaccine come amid a surge of COVID-19 cases, particularly with the new variant, BA.5. 

The Centers for Disease Control says it now accounts for most of all new cases in the country. Sethi says this is due to the way the virus mutates.

“It’s able to evade the immunity that people have either from vaccination or previous infection, said Sethi. “Antibodies that you might have developed previously aren’t going to be as effective against BA5.” 

Though there are more infections happening recently with the BA.5 variant, Sethi says this doesn’t mean the virus is intrinsically more harmful. 

“The reason we’re seeing an increase in hospitalizations is because people’s level of protection isn’t as adequate as it was previously with other circulating variants,” said Sethi. “ Some people say it’s more infectious, and there’s probably a little bit of that, but it’s not infectious in the sense that the virus is that much more infectious than the previous variants.” 

Though this BA.5 variant is showing up in people who are vaccinated, Sethi says it’s still important to stay updated on your shots. 

“Vaccines still can prevent people from getting severe disease and death,” Sethi, ”They’re not rendered useless yet against protecting people against severe disease and death. But when the virus keeps evolving, you know, an update to the vaccine is going to eventually be needed.”

Government advisers voted last month that it’s time to tweak booster doses to better match the most recent virus variants.