Once again, the United States is trudging into what could be another COVID-19 increase, with cases rising nationally and in most states after a two-month decline.
A big unknown? “We do not know how high that mountain is going to grow,” said Dr. Stuart Campbell Ray, an expert in infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University.
No one expects a peak almost as high as the last, as the infectious omicron version of the coronavirus ripped through the population.
But experts warn that the coming wave – caused by one mutant called BA.2 it is thought to be about 30% more contagious – will flush across the nation and force hospitalizations in an increasing number of states in the coming weeks. And the case wave is getting bigger than it looks, they say, because reported numbers are large under counter as more people test at home without reporting their infections or skipping tests altogether.
At the height of the previous omicron rise, reported daily cases reached hundreds of thousands. On April 14, the seven-day rolling average for daily new cases rose to 39,521, up from 30,724 two weeks earlier, according to data from Johns Hopkins collected by The Associated Press.
Dr. Eric Topol, head of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, said the numbers are likely to continue to grow until the rise reaches about a quarter of the height of the last “monstrous”. BA.2 may well have the same effect in the U.S. as it did in Israel, where it created a “bump” in the chart’s measurement case, he said.
Keeping the increase slightly in check, experts said, is a higher level of immunity in the United States from vaccination or previous infection compared to early winter.
But Ray said the United States could end up looking like Europe, where the BA.2 increase was “significant” in some places that had comparable levels of immunity. “We could get a significant increase here,” he said.
Both experts said BA.2 will gradually move through the country. The Northeast has been hardest hit so far – with more than 90% of new infections caused by BA.2 last week compared to 86% nationwide. As of Thursday, the highest numbers of new COVID cases per capita over the past 14 days were in Vermont, Rhode Island, Alaska, New York and Massachusetts. In Washington, DC, which also ranks in the top 10 for the number of new cases, Howard University announced that it moved most undergraduate classes online for the rest of the semester due to “a significant increase in COVID-19 positivity” in district and on campus.
Some states, such as Rhode Island and New Hampshire, saw the average daily incidence increase by more than 100% in two weeks, according to Johns Hopkins data.
Joseph Wendelken, spokesman for the Rhode Island Department of Health, said despite increasing cases, hospital admissions remain relatively low, and that is the goal they are most focused on right now. About 55 COVID-19 patients are hospitalized, compared to more than 600 at one point in the pandemic.
Officials credit high vaccination rates. State statistics show that 99% of Rhode Island adults are at least partially vaccinated, and 48% have received the booster dose that researchers say is key to protecting against serious disease with omicron.
Vermont also has relatively high levels of vaccination and fewer patients in the hospital than below 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 have both increased slightly, although deaths have not increased.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control show that new hospitalizations of patients with confirmed COVID-19 increased slightly in New England and the New York region.
On the west coast, model builders from Oregon Health & Science University predict a slight increase in hospital admissions over the next two months in this state, where cases have also risen sharply.
As the wave moves across the country, experts said states with low vaccination rates could face significantly more infections and serious cases ending up in the hospital.
Ray said government leaders need to be careful about striking the right note when talking to people about protecting themselves and others after COVID restrictions have been largely lifted. Philadelphia was recently the first major U.S. city to reintroduce its mandate for indoor masking after a sharp rise in the number of infections. But Vermont’s Levine said there are no plans to bring back any of the restrictions imposed earlier in the pandemic.
“It will be difficult to impose restrictive, draconian measures,” Ray said. “Fortunately, we have some tools that we can use to reduce the risk. And so I hope managers will emphasize the importance of people keeping an eye on the numbers,” be aware of risks and consider taking precautions such as wearing masks and be vaccinated and boosted if they are not already.
Lynne Richmond, a 59-year-old breast cancer survivor living in Silver Spring, Md., Said she plans to get her second booster and continue to wear her mask in public as cases rise in her state and nearby Washington, D.C. DC
“I never really stopped wearing my mask … I’ve been very vigilant,” she said. “I feel I have come this far; I do not want to get COVID. “
Vigilance is a good strategy, experts said, because coronavirus constantly throws curveballs. One of the most recent: even more infectious subvariants of BA.2 found in the state of New York, known as BA.2.12 and BA.2.12.1. And scientists warn that new and potentially dangerous varieties can emerge at any time.
“We should not think that the pandemic is over,” Topol said. “We still have to keep our guard up.”