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Justice and team: State preps for BA.5 growth and strains on hospitals; Hoyer expects info on new Novavax vaccine next week

MORGANTOWN — The BA.5 omicron surge keeps building, the state is preparing for how hospitals will handle it, and a new vaccine will soon be available. Gov. Jim Justice and his team unfolded all those topics during Thursday’s COVID briefing.

Active cases stood at 2,889 Thursday, with 1,030 new cases reported. Hospitalizations continued their steady climb, reaching 330 Thursday, with 39 in ICUs and five on ventilators. Joint Interagency Task Force Director Gen. James Hoyer said 54 people were admitted Thursday.

COVID-19 czar Dr. Clay Marsh said that in the last week of June, just 1% of the positive cases sequenced were BA.5; then, in the first week of July, that grew to 33% — showing that BA.5 is taking over as the dominant variant here, as in the rest of the country and across the world.

South Africa, with a relatively younger population, he said, saw BA.5-related hospitalizations go up, but not deaths. Portugal, though, with an older population, saw cases, hospitalizations and deaths rise, as did New Zealand. In the U.S., Los Angeles is seeing increased mortality.

It’s the most-infectious variant to date, Marsh said, and can reinfect those who’ve already had COVID. Because of that, and because West Virginia has an older and less-healthy population, it’s important to keep up with vaccines.

Hospital capacity

Marsh reminded everyone of Hoyer’s Tuesday briefing about reduced hospital capacity across the state, “in this sort of new COVID era with staffing challenges that still persist. Because of those challenges, the statewide estimate to handle COVID cases has been trimmed from 800 cases to 500.

Hoyer said if nothing changes, hospitals are on a path to reach that 500 threshold around Labor Day. The task force and others are exploring how to handle that. The tabletop exercises set for the first week of August will give a better picture of their options. They may include some hospitals reinstating more stringent mask mandates, sanitization measures, evaluating hospital air flow and bringing in National Guard members.

“It could be a variety of options to help reduce the challenges that we might have in facilities,” he said.

New vaccine

On Wednesday, the FDA issued emergency use authorization for a fourth vaccine: Novavax.

Hoyer said the task force is communicating with federal authorities to understand how that will unfold for West Virginia concerning such things as ordering supplies and how many vaccine doses will come here. He expects to be able to provide more information next week.

Novavax is approved for adults 18 and up. The FDA said it is administered as a two-dose primary series, three weeks apart.

The vaccine was tested, FDA said, with 26,000 clinical trial participants who received the vaccine and 25,000 who received a placebo. The most commonly reported side effects included pain/tenderness, redness and swelling at the injection site, fatigue, muscle pain, headache, joint pain, nausea/vomiting and fever. About 21,000 vaccine recipients had at least two months of safety follow-up after their second dose.

FDA said clinical trial data provides evidence for increased risks of myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) and pericarditis (inflammation of tissue surrounding the heart) following vaccine administration. Symptoms began within 10 days following vaccination and people should seek medical attention right away if they experience chest pain, shortness of breath, feelings of having a fast-beating, fluttering or pounding heart.

Fortune reported that the Novavax vaccine is only FDA OK’d for the initial two doses at this time, not for boosters. The booster OK may take a few more weeks. Novavax has been approved as both a primary vaccine and a booster in the European Union, Australia and Japan.

Fortune said Novavax will soon seek FDA approval for a U.S. booster and it is working on an Omicron-specific booster that it expects to roll out this fall.

Unlike the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines that use genetically engineered mRNA to help the body create antibodies, FDA and Fortune said, Novavax uses a spike protein to teach the body to create antibodies. The spike protein is produced in insect cells.

Novavax also includes an “adjuvant,” an ingredient used in some vaccines that helps create a stronger immune response, as the CDC explains. In this case, FDA said, the vaccine’s Matrix M-adjuvant contains saponin extracts from the bark of the soapbark tree that is native to Chile.

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