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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden took off his suit jacket and rolled up his shirt sleeve Tuesday to get the new updated COVID-19 booster shot on camera after warning Americans previous vaccinations and infections are no longer the best safeguard against the deadly virus.
"If you get it, you're protected. And if you don't, you're putting yourself and other people at unnecessary risk," the president said at a White House news conference. He called on all Americans to get the new booster shot, available to those as young as 5 once they've completed the initial vaccination series, as soon as they can.
"Your old vaccine or your previous COVID infection will not give you maximum protection. Let me be as plain as I can. We still have hundreds of people dying each day from COVID in this country. Hundreds. That number is likely to rise this winter," he said. "But this year is different from the past. Nearly every death is preventable."
The updated booster shots, which target the currently circulating BA.4 and BA.5 omicron subvariants in addition to the original COVID-19 strain, are considered effective in preventing hospitalizations and deaths from the virus even though breakthrough cases may occur.
For most Americans, COVID-19 booster shots will only be needed once a year, just like an annual flu shot, the president said, noting the rise in cases of flu and RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, especially in young children, that could turn into what some are calling a potential "tripledemic" if COVID-19 also hits hard.
"Take precautions. Stay safe," he urged, advising Americans to also vaccinate themselves and their children against the flu by Halloween. Then, Biden said, they "can spend Thanksgiving with family and friends with peace of mind, knowing you've done your part for everyone's well-being."
He touted the widespread availability of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments under his administration, saying 95% of Americans live within five miles of where free, updated booster shots are being given by doctors, pharmacies and local health departments.
The president also reiterated a plea to Congress for more funding to keep up the fight against COVID-19.
"This is a global health emergency," said Biden, who last month declared the pandemic over. He asked "that as we enter this new moment in the battle against COVID-19, let's use it to start fresh as a country. To put all of the old battles over COVID behind us. To put all of the partisan politics aside."
The United States, the president said, has already lost over 1 million people to the virus, "but we can do so much now to reduce the number of people who die from this terrible disease. We have the tools. We have the vaccines. We have the treatments. None of this is about politics. It's about your health, the health of your loved ones."
Biden's booster shot comes amid increasing concern the United States could face another COVID-19 surge this winter, driven by newer versions of the virus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the BA.5 omicron subvariant, responsible for nearly all cases in August, now accounts for an estimated 62%.
Since August, other subvariants of the omicron variant that sent cases skyrocketing to record levels last winter, have begun to spread. One of those, known as BA.4.6, now makes up more than 11% of cases nationwide and is seen as better at infecting those who've had COVID-19 before as well as those who've gotten all their shots.
But the number of cases attributed to two newer subvariants, BQ.1 and BQ1.1, nearly doubled over the week ending last Thursday, now accounting for more than 16% across the country. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control is predicting BQ.1 and BQ1.1 will cause a spike in cases in Europe, Reuters reported recently.
The same could be coming to the United States, an American expert said.
"These variants (BQ.1 and BQ.1.1) can quite possibly lead to a very bad surge of illness this winter in the U.S., as it's already starting to happen in Europe and the U.K.," Gregory Poland, a virologist and vaccine researcher at the Mayo Clinic, told Reuters.