(AP) — Once again, the United States is heading for what could be another surge of COVID-19, with cases rising nationally and in most states after a two-month decline.
A great unknown? “We don’t know how high this mountain will go,” said Johns Hopkins University infectious disease expert Dr. Stuart Campbell Ray.
No one expects a spike nearly as high as the last one, when the contagious omicron version of the coronavirus ripped through the population.
But experts warn the coming wave – caused by a mutant called BA.2 that is believed to be around 30% more contagious – will sweep across the country. They fear that hospitalizations, which are already rising in parts of the Northeast, will increase in a growing number of states in the coming weeks. And the surge of cases will be bigger than it looks, they say, as the numbers reported are vast undercounts as more people test at home without reporting their infections or skip testing altogether. .
At the peak of omicron’s previous surge, reported daily cases were in the hundreds of thousands. On Thursday, the seven-day rolling average of new daily cases rose to 39,521, from 30,724 two weeks earlier, according to Johns Hopkins data collected by The Associated Press.
Dr Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, said the numbers will likely continue to grow until the surge reaches about a quarter of the height of the last “monstrous”. BA.2 may well have the same effect in the United States as in Israel, where it has created a “bump” in the array of measurement cases, he said.
According to experts, the level of immunity in the United States against vaccination or past infections is higher compared to the beginning of winter.
But Ray said the United States could end up looking like Europe, where the BA.2 surge was “substantial” in some places that had comparable levels of immunity. “We could have a substantial increase here,” he said.
The two experts said BA.2 will gradually move across the country. The North East has been hardest hit so far – with more than 90% of new infections caused by BA.2 in the past week, compared to 86% nationally. On Thursday, the highest rates of new COVID cases per capita over the past 14 days were in Vermont, Rhode Island, Alaska, New York and Massachusetts. In Washington, D.C., which also ranks in the top 10 for new case rates, Howard University announced it was moving most undergraduate classes online for the remainder of the semester due to “a significant increase in COVID-19 positivity” in the district and on campus.
Some states, like Rhode Island and New Hampshire, have seen average new daily cases increase by more than 100% in two weeks, according to data from Johns Hopkins.
In New Hampshire, the spike in cases comes two weeks after all 11 state-run vaccination sites closed, and the governor is under pressure to change course.
Joseph Wendelken, spokesman for the Rhode Island Department of Health, said the metric they are most focused on right now is hospitalizations, which remain relatively low. About 55 COVID-19 patients are hospitalized, compared to more than 600 at one point in the pandemic.
Officials attribute high vaccination rates. State statistics show that 99% of adults in Rhode Island are at least partially vaccinated and 48% have received the booster dose which scientists say is essential to protect against serious illness with omicron.
Vermont also has relatively high vaccination levels and fewer patients in the hospital than at the height of the first omicron wave. But Dr Mark Levine, the health commissioner there, said hospitalizations and the number of patients in intensive care units were up slightly, although deaths did not increase.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that new hospital admissions of patients with confirmed COVID-19 have increased slightly in New England and the New York area.
On the West Coast, modelers at Oregon Health & Science University predict a slight increase in hospitalizations over the next two months in that state, where cases have also risen sharply.
As the wave moves across the country, experts said states with low vaccination rates could face many more infections and serious cases that end up in hospital.
Ray said government leaders must be careful to strike the right tone when talking to people about protecting themselves and others after COVID restrictions have largely been lifted. Philadelphia recently became the first major US city to reinstate its indoor mask mandate after a spike in infections. But Vermont’s Levine said there were no plans to reinstate any of the restrictions imposed earlier during the pandemic.
“It’s going to be difficult to institute restrictive and draconian measures,” Ray said. “Fortunately, we have tools that we can use to mitigate the risks. And so I hope leaders will stress the importance of people watching the numbers,” be aware of the risks and consider taking precautions such as wearing masks and vaccination and booster. if they are not already.
Lynne Richmond, a 59-year-old breast cancer survivor who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, said she plans to get her second booster and continue wearing her mask in public as cases rise in her state and nearby Washington, DC
“I never really stopped wearing my mask…I stayed ultra-vigilant,” she said. “I feel like I’ve come this far; I don’t want to get COVID.”
At the 250-bed New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton, staff are still wearing masks and social distancing. Veterans are allowed limited excursions to places like an antique race car museum and restaurants where they can have a separate bedroom and wait staff are masked.
Vigilance is a good strategy, experts said, because the coronavirus is constantly throwing curve balls. One of the latest: even more contagious subvariants of BA.2 found in New York State, known as BA.2.12 and BA.2.12.1. And scientists warn that potentially dangerous new variants could emerge at any time.
“We shouldn’t think the pandemic is over,” Topol said. “We should always keep our guard up.”