WH: COVID cases rising, but treatments keeping death rate low

During the White House COVID-19 response team briefing Wednesday, coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha said that while cases are rising in the U.S., therapeutics like Paxlovid are helping to keep the death rate from the disease lower than expected.

Video transcript

ASHISH JHA: So if we take a step back and begin with where we are as a country, we have more than 200 million Americans vaccinated, more than 100 million Americans boosted. We have a pretty high degree of immunity in our population. But we're also seeing at this moment a lot of infections across the country. Depending on which tracker you use, we're at about 100,000 infections or cases a day.

And we know that the number of infections is actually substantially higher than that, hard to know exactly how many. But we know that a lot of people are getting diagnosed using home tests. Home tests are great, by the way. I've been a huge fan of home tests for the last two years. But what that means is we're clearly undercounting infections-- undercounting cases.

There's a lot of infections across America. What's driving that? What is primarily driving that is these incredibly contagious sub-variants. We were hit with the BA.1 wave of infections in December, January. We saw BA.2, and now we're seeing in a large chunk of the country BA2.12.1. They are more contagious with more immune escape. And they are driving a lot of the increases in infection that we're seeing across the nation right now. And that is a huge challenge.

On the issue of how do we make sure that infections don't turn into severe illness. When I came into this job about five or six weeks ago, again, under Jeff Zients leadership, the administration, I think had done an extraordinary job of obtaining and acquiring Paxlovid and other therapeutics. And yet, six weeks ago, despite acquiring all that, the Paxlovid had not started really getting out there.

We put in a series of steps. We made it much more widely available by letting pharmacies order directly from the federal government. We expanded test to treat sites. There's going to be more on that coming in the days and weeks ahead. We did a big effort to connect with providers and simplify the ordering and prescription process, making sure they understood what drug-drug interactions really mattered, who was eligible.

And then we talked more broadly to the media. All of us did. And what we have seen I think is a dramatic increase in the use of Paxlovid-- about four-fold increase just in the last month. And our latest estimates are that about 20,000 prescriptions of Paxlovid are being given out every single day.

I think that is actually a really important reason why, despite this very substantial increase in infections, we have not seen a commiserate increase in deaths. We have seen hospitalizations rise but, again, not as much as one would have expected at this point despite the fact that hospitalizations so lag.

When you look at ICU care, the rate of ICU hospital admissions is much lower than one would expect with infections. And then death numbers continue to be low. Obviously, we want to continue to drive that lower. But I really think that beyond the vaccinations and boosting, which are making a very big difference, I think Paxlovid is making a very big difference as well.