Biden COVID Diagnosis Highlights Risks to Older Americans

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President Joe Biden is responding well to treatments for COVID-19, White House doctor Kevin C. O’Connor, DO, said Friday. But the 79-year-old’s positive test on Thursday is a reminder of one of the harsh but enduring truths of the pandemic: Older Americans are still more vulnerable to severe illness and death from the coronavirus than other age groups.

Though the Omicron subvariants that have dominated 2022 usually cause less severe illness and death than previous strains, COVID deaths this year have been concentrated in older Americans more than at any other point since vaccines became widely available, The New York Times reported.

As of early June, Americans in the 75-to-84 age group died four times more often each week than Americans 55 to 64 years old, the newspaper reported, citing provisional CDC data. At the peak of the Omicron wave last winter, Americans 75 to 84 were dying twice as often each week than people 55 to 64, according to the Times.

The current danger to the elderly apparently is occurring because of timing: The BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants arrived when older Americans’ vaccine immunity was waning.

Though older Americans have a high vaccination rate overall, many of them got vaccinated in 2021, when vaccines were first available. Booster shots would shore up that immunity, health officials say, but campaigns to encourage people to get a second booster shot – now available for people over 50 and the immunocompromised – have faltered.

The CDC says only 36.5% of Americans over 65 have gotten a second booster, compared to 70.5% of Americans in that age group who got the first booster and 91.8% who are fully vaccinated.

Also, the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants are better at evading the body’s immune systems.

“One of the key messages coming out of this moment is: If you are 50 or over and you have not gotten a shot this year … it is absolutely critical that you go out and get one now,” White House COVID-19 response coordinator Ashish Jha, MD, said Sunday on ABC News.

Older people generally have weaker immune systems and more health conditions than younger people. COVID has hit senior Americans hard, especially those in nursing homes during the early days of the pandemic, before vaccines became available.

Of the 1 million-plus COVID deaths in the United States, about a quarter (263,000) have occurred in the 75-to-84 age group and a quarter in the above-85 age group.

Sources

Physician to the president, the White House: “President Biden SARS-CoV-2 Update,” July 22, 2022.

The New York Times: “Covid’s risks are concentrated among Americans of Biden’s age.”

CDC Data Tracker.

ABC News: “Biden admin stresses vaccines for older Americans as ‘most immune evasive’ COVID variant spreads.”