The last two pandemic summers saw a spike in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, but this season may be different.
Although health experts expect cases to rise, they said the wave will not be as devastating as the previous two summers or the rise of the omicron variant of the coronavirus.
Unlike previous summers, most of the American population has some immunity to the coronavirus from previous vaccinations, boosters and infections. People have access to antivirals that can prevent hospitalizations in the unvaccinated.
However, immunity wanes and new variants could evade what protection remains.
“I know we all want to end COVID, but I don’t think it will end us,” said Dr. Jessica Justman, associate professor of medicine in epidemiology and senior technical lead for ICAP at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. . .
what to expect this summer
Coronavirus trends in the spring give experts clues about what to expect this summer. Cases plummeted after omicron’s surge in the winter, then plateaued and started rising again in the spring.
A USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins data shows the pace of cases doubled in April compared to the previous month to around 54,000 a day. The average rate of deaths fell to 327 a day, about half what it was at the end of March.
The month ended with 17,288 COVID-19 patients in hospital, not much higher than the end of March of 16,032.
Although the unpredictable coronavirus makes it difficult to determine what the summer will be like, experts have a few theories.
The worst case scenario is the appearance of a potent variant that is not attenuated by previous vaccinations and infections, causing a large wave of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.
“A full surge through the summer will really depend on one variant fully emerging. That tends to be the biggest trigger that will send us into a surge,” said Dr. Keri Althoff, a professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Those transmissible variants are good at finding pockets of unvaccinated people, and those people are more at risk of hospitalization and death.”
The best case is a sustained level of low transmission and no new variants.
Julie Swann, a public health professor and researcher at North Carolina State University, expects the situation this summer to land in the middle: a small wave across the country with a slight increase in hospitalizations and deaths.
The areas that are likely to be most affected by this surge are the ones that are not heavily affected by the omicron variant where people have not mounted immunity protection.
“I expect this next wave to be much smaller than the one we had in January,” he said. “In the US, there are communities that have been less exposed to this virus, so they are likely to have a big impact from the virus in the coming weeks and months.”
What to expect in the long term: Is COVID-19 endemic?
Barring one devastating variant, most health experts agree, the country may finally be out of the acute pandemic phase.
It is still far from an endemic phase, when COVID-19 would become like the seasonal flu, bringing a week or two of misery but low risk of serious illness or death.
“We’re in the middle,” Justman said. “I hope we’re moving towards endemic, but I can’t say we’re endemic because I don’t feel like things are predictable yet.”
For COVID-19 to be considered endemic, Althoff said, scientists must determine an acceptable level of transmission. That has not happened.
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“We don’t have an agreed reference level of COVID occurring in communities for years and decades and a lifetime to come,” he said. “We have to figure out what that level is and agree (on that) as a reasonable level of illness.”
A virus can also be considered endemic when it follows a predictable pattern, Justman said.
For example, health officials can predict each year when the flu season will begin and end, which strains may appear, and how many cases may occur. SARS-CoV-2 has not shown a discernible seasonal pattern.
“We would all agree that we are not in a place where we can predict how many cases there are going to be and what the locations of those case numbers are going to be,” Justman said. “We don’t know what’s coming.”
An endemic virus doesn’t disrupt people’s lives, Althoff said, and that’s not the case with COVID-19.
When people test positive for the coronavirus, they should isolate themselves from family members, self-quarantine, wear a mask, and avoid travel. Sometimes a person is pulled from school or works from home and close contacts must be notified.
“Is the virus still disrupting our lives? It absolutely is,” Althoff said.
Although the virus has not entered an endemic phase, health experts hope the country is on its way. The first step is to prevent serious illness, so that a spike in cases doesn’t lead to more hospitalizations and deaths, Justman said.
The best way to do this is for Americans to stay up to date on their vaccinations and practice mitigation measures to keep their vulnerable loved ones safe.
“I hope that we are getting closer to the point where we can disconnect the increase in cases from the increase in hospitalizations,” Justman said. “That’s where we want to go.”
Contributors: Karen Weintraub and Mike StuckaUSA TODAY
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Is COVID-19 endemic? What experts say Americans should expect this summer