The holidays have come and gone, and once again Americans are dealing with respiratory illnesses, including Covid. But so far, this winter's Covid surge appears less deadly than last year's and far less than 2022, when the Omicron surge brought the nation to a standstill.
“We don't see any signs that would make me think we're going into another severe wave,” said Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “We're in relatively good shape so far.”
Still, few masks are visible and only a fraction of the most vulnerable have received the latest Covid shots, he noted.
“It's not too late,” Dr. Rivers added. “For Covid, we haven't even reached the peak yet, and once you reach the peak, you have to come down the other side.” This leaves plenty of time for the vaccine to provide some protection.
Federal officials are relying on limited data to gauge this year's outbreak. After the public health emergency ended in May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stopped tracking the number of Covid infections. The agency now has only partial access to information from states on vaccination rates.
But trends wastewater data, Positive Analyses, emergency department visits, hospitalization Rates and Number of dead All regions of the country, according to the CDC, have these patterns, indicating an increase in infections forced a lot hospitals that restoration mask politicsAfter initially resisting returning to them this fall.
As in previous years, numbers have been steadily increasing throughout the winter and are expected to increase further after holiday travel and meetings.
Most infections are caused by a new variant, JN.1, which has spread rapidly around the world in recent weeks. “I think there's no question that it's contributing significantly to this winter's wave,” said Kathleen Jethelina, a public health expert and author of a widely read newsletter.Your local epidemiologist.”
“Unfortunately, this happens right around the time we're opening up our social networks for the holidays,” he said, “so there's kind of a perfect storm going on right now.”
Some scientists are pointing to rising levels of the virus in sewage samples as an indicator that infections this year are as high as they were last year. But Dr. Rivers urged caution in interpreting the wastewater data as a proxy for infections, saying hospitalizations are a more reliable metric.
In the week ending Dec. 23, hospitalizations rose nearly 17 percent from the previous week. About 29,000 new hospitalizations were reported, compared with 39,000 in the same week last year and 61,000 in 2021.
And weekly hospitalizations are increasing more slowly than in previous years, Dr. Rivers said.
Covid still claims at least 1,200 lives a week. But that number is about one-third this time last year and one-eighth in 2021.
“We're in this pretty big wave of infections right now, but what's really interesting is how large the hospitalizations are and continue to be separate from the infections,” Dr. Jethelina said.
He said he is most concerned about hospitals that are collapsing under the weight of multiple outbreaks at the same time. Even in the years before a pandemic, outbreaks of influenza and respiratory syncytial virus alone could strain hospitals; Rising rates of Covid now overlap both diseases and add to the burden.
The CDC estimates there have been at least 7.1 million illnesses, 73,000 hospitalizations and 4,500 deaths from the flu this season.
While Covid is usually mild in children and adolescents, influenza and RSV are most dangerous to young children and the elderly. All three diseases are especially dangerous for babies.
Emergency department visits for Covid are highest among infants and the elderly. Although RSV has declined in some parts of the country, hospitalization rates remain high among young children and the elderly.
Option JN.1 provides almost half Of all the Covid cases in the United States, nearly six times the spread just a month ago. The variant has one mutation that gives it a greater ability to evade immunity than its parent, BA.2.86, which was limited in its spread.
JN.1 may actually be less contagious than previous variants. But its immunosuppression, along with the disappearance of preventive measures such as masks, may explain its exponential growth in the whole worldsaid Dr. Abraar Karan, an infectious disease specialist and postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University.
Experts have urged all Americans — including those at high risk of serious illness — to get vaccinated against both Covid and the flu, use masks and air purifiers to prevent infections, get tested and treated, and stay home if they get sick.
The researchers noted that even those who do not become severely ill are at risk of long-term complications with each new viral infection.
“Honestly, I'm not at high risk — I'm young and I'm vaccinated,” Dr. Rivers said. “But I continue to take precautions in my life because I don't want to deal with that delay and the risk that I could develop a longer-term illness.”
But few Americans follow that advice. As of Dec. 23, only 19 percent of adults have received the latest Covid vaccine, while about 44 percent have opted for the annual flu shot. More than 17 percent of adults over age 60 have received the RSV vaccine
Even among those aged 75 and older, who are at the highest risk of Covid, only approx one out of three According to the CDC, the most recent shot was received
Many people don't realize that tools to protect against the latest variants are available, or that they should be vaccinated even if they're not at high risk, said Gigi Gronval, a biosecurity expert at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
Even if the Covid vaccine does not prevent infection, it can reduce the duration and severity of the illness and reduce the risk of long-term symptoms, including brain fog, fatigue, movement problems and dizziness – collectively known as prolonged Covid.
“I'm sure there are also a lot of people who are enthusiastic about this idea, but most people I meet, they just don't even know about it,” Dr. Gronval said.
Low availability of vaccination, especially for children and the elderly, also limited vaccination rates.
Dr Gronval has been fighting to find a Covid vaccine for his teenage son. Dr. Jethelina has not yet found one for her young children. He said his grandparents, who are both in their 90s, also had an “incredibly difficult time”.
One of them is in a nursing home and still hasn't been immunized because he was sick the day the vaccines were offered.
a lot Nursing home residents And staff members remain unvaccinated because staff don't understand the benefits, said Dr. Karan, who has worked in nursing facilities in Los Angeles County.
Financial incentives can improve vaccine coverage, but lack of awareness of the benefits is “a major problem,” he said.
Experts also urged people who develop symptoms to get tested and ask for antiviral drugs – Tamiflu for flu, Paxlovide for Covid – especially if they are at high risk of complications.
Paxlovid is still available for free to most people, but many patients and even doctors avoid it because of the mistaken belief that it causes a return of Covid symptoms, experts say. Recent studies did not do find it relationship between antiviral drugs and symptom reversal.
“For many viruses, including influenza, we know that early use of antivirals will be beneficial,” Dr. Karan said. “You quickly stop the virus from replicating, so you have less immune dysregulation.”