"The groundwork of all happiness is health." - Leigh Hunt

Maybe it's time to listen to COVID again

August 10, 2023 – More than three years into the COVID-19 era, most Americans have returned to their pre-pandemic lifestyle. But a recent dominant variant and rising hospitalization rates could lead on to a different summer wave.

A recent COVID variant has emerged since April. According to the most recent CDC DataEG.5 – from the Omicron family – now accounts for 17% of all cases within the US, up from 7.5% in the primary week of July.

A Summary of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy on the University of Minnesota says EG.5, dubbed “Eris” by health experts, is sort of equivalent to its parent strain XBB.1.9.2 but has an extra spike mutation.

Along with the news of the increasing spread of EG.5, COVID-related Hospitalization rates have risen by 12.5% ​​within the last week – the most important increase since December. However, no link has been found between the brand new variant and rising hospital admissions. And thus far, experts have found no difference within the severity of the disease or symptoms between Eris and the previous variants.

Cause for concern?

The COVID virus has a fantastic tendency to mutate, says Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

“Fortunately, these are relatively small mutations.” Nevertheless, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, remains to be highly contagious. “There is no doubt that it is spreading – but it is not worse.”

So Schaffner doesn't think it's time to panic. He prefers to discuss a “surge” in cases moderately than a “rise” because an increase “sounds too big.”

Although the numbers are still low in comparison with the surge last summer, experts still urge people to concentrate on the changes within the virus. “I don't think there is any cause for alarm,” agreed Dr. Bernard Camins, an infectious disease specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

So why the upper variety of cases? “This summer, there was a surge in COVID cases, likely driven by travel, social contact and the dwindling use of masks,” said Dr. Anne Liu, an allergy, immunology and infectious disease specialist at Stanford University. Even so, she said, “due to existing immunity from vaccination and previous infection, immunity was limited and the severity of cases was lower than in previous outbreaks.”

What the official figures say

The CDC updates its Weekly review of the COVID data trackerThey were discontinued in May 2023 when the federal health emergency ended.

However, the agency continues to trace COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, emergency room visits and deaths in alternative ways. Key findings this week include 9,056 recent hospitalizations reported for the week ending July 29, 2023. That's relatively low in comparison with July 30, 2022, when the weekly number of recent hospitalizations exceeded 44,000.

“Last year we had a summer wave with a peak in cases in mid-July, so our summer wave is coming a little later than last year,” said Pavitra Roychoudhury, PhD, assistant professor and researcher within the Division of Vaccines and Infectious Diseases on the University of Washington School of Medicine.

“It is unclear how high the peak will be during the current wave. SARS-CoV-2 levels in wastewater and the number of hospital admissions are currently lower than at the same time last year.”

For a part of the pandemic, the CDC really useful that folks monitor COVID numbers in their very own communities, however the agency's local COVID guidance is tied to hospitalization rates, that are currently low in greater than 99% of the country, even in the event that they are rising.

While it is nice news that hospitalizations have declined, it also implies that the agency's ability to discover local outbreaks or hotspots of SARS-CoV-2 is now more limited.

Not only is there a nationwide increase in hospitalizations, but other COVID-19 indicators corresponding to emergency room visits, positive tests, and sewage levels are also increasing across the United States.

Regarding other metrics:

  • On June 19, 0.47% of emergency department visits resulted in a positive COVID diagnosis. By August 4, that rate had greater than doubled to 1.1%.
  • As of July 29, 8.9% of people that took a COVID test reported a positive result. The positivity rate has been rising since June 10, when 4.1% of tests got here back positive. This number only includes test results reported to the CDC. Results from at-home tests remain largely unknown.
  • The weekly percentage of deaths related to COVID-19 was 1% on July 29. This is low in comparison with previous rates. For example, within the week ending July 30, 2022, it was 5.8%.

What about recent COVID vaccines?

As long as you proceed to make informed selections and get the brand new Omicron vaccine or a booster shot when it becomes available, experts predict lower hospitalization rates this winter.

“Everyone should get the Omicron booster vaccine as soon as it is available,” recommends Dr. Dean Winslow, professor of medication at Stanford University in California.

In the meantime, it’s “important to emphasize that COVID-19 is here to stay for the foreseeable future,” he said. Because the symptoms of those newer omicron subvariants are generally milder than those of earlier variants, “if you have mild cold symptoms, it's a good idea to get tested for COVID-19 and start treatment early if you are older or have other high-risk conditions for severe disease.”

Schaffner stays optimistic for now. “We assume that the vaccines that are currently available to us, and certainly the vaccine that is being developed for this fall, will continue to prevent severe disease associated with this virus.”

While it's difficult to predict a precise timeline, Schaffner said they may very well be available by the top of September.

His predictions assume “that a new, dangerous variant will not emerge somewhere in the world,” he said.[If] If things proceed to evolve as they’ve, we expect this vaccine … to be really effective and help us avoid hospitalization this winter once we expect COVID cases to surge again.”

When asked for his opinion on vaccination recommendations, Camins was less sure. “It's too early to say.” Recommendations on COVID vaccinations would be based on the results of ongoing studies, he said. “However, it might be clever for everybody to plan a flu shot in September.”

Stay alert and realistic

Cautious optimism and a call for vigilance seem to be the consensus at the moment. Although the numbers remain low so far and the increase in new cases and hospitalizations is relatively small compared to previous scenarios, “it is sensible to extend our anti-omicron antibody levels through vaccination before the autumn and winter,” Liu said.

“It's simply advisable for everybody – especially those that are at higher risk of hospitalization or death – to concentrate on this,” Camins said, “in order that they could make their very own decisions about whether to take part in activities that might put them prone to contracting COVID-19.”

We have to keep reminding ourselves that these respiratory virus vaccines – whether they're for flu, COVID, or even RSV – are best at keeping us out of hospital. They're less effective at preventing milder infections.

Schaffner said: “So if we don’t expect perfection, we won’t be so disappointed.”