Crowded indoor events and sold-out flights where masks are few and far between suggest the pandemic is a distant, unpleasant memory.
In fact, Covid-19 cases have been steadily increasing nationwide since late March. Hospitalization and death rates remain low and are likely to remain so. But beyond that, many experts say they are unable to predict the trajectory of the current waveincluding how and when it will end.
Given the last two years of pandemic precedent, this is somewhat surprising – and one of many indicators that the continued rise in cases is markedly different from previous Covid surges. Some experts say it could even mark the start of the country’s “new normal”.
Here’s why, and what it means for the future of the pandemic:
Previous outbreaks have been caused by the emergence of new variants of Covid. This surge is fueled primarily by declining immunities, says Dr. David Dowdyassociate professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and physician at Baltimore Medical Services.
The immunity people gained while recovering from the omicron wave in December and January wanes, allowing omicron and its subvariants “TO DO [their] spinning again,” Dowdy told CNBC Make It. And many Americans are no longer taking particularly strict Covid precautions, assuming that if they get sick they’ll likely recover without ever being hospitalized.
Taken together, that helps explain the past two months of rising cases: The country’s seven-day rolling average of new daily cases stands at 109,032 on Wednesday, according centers for disease control and prevention. This large number is likely a significant undercount, with many people now relying on home testing – not report their results – or by avoiding Covid tests altogether.
“We see this disconnect between the ‘official’ number of cases, for example, and the percentage positivity or other indicators like sewage monitoring,” Dowdy says.
The winter omicron wave had an incredibly steep peak. On the other hand, this one is animated more by “a lot of mini-waves that come and go”, explains Dr. Howard P. Formandirector of the health care management program at the Yale School of Public Health.
Forman says the geographic circulation of the virus is different this time around: when New York is struggling, for example, Florida can do just fine, and vice versa. These regional waves are often driven by different omicron sub-variants – sometimes several at once – which makes the virus even more difficult to control. Forman says this is likely what Covid will look like for the foreseeable future.
This does not mean reinstating lockdowns or mask mandates. On the contrary, Forman says, people should be prepared to adjust their behavior and take necessary precautions in the event of an outbreak in their area – using metrics such as hospitalization rates instead of daily new cases to gauge the local gravity.
“People need to understand that we’re still going to have some real waves and concerning new variants, and they need to continue to be careful and treat this as if it’s still a pandemic,” Forman says.
The number of cases in the United States could eventually fall back to its levels of early March. Or, it could be a glimpse of what Covid-19 looks like as an endemic virus – in other words, our “new normal”.
Either way, instead of trying to live like it’s 2019 again, Forman recommends incorporating Covid prevention strategies into your daily routine. That mainly means, he says, staying up to date on your vaccines and familiarizing yourself with home self-testing on a semi-regular basis.
Dowdy says you should take a home test an hour before you go to a big event or visit loved ones because “that will be the best indication of your level of contagiousness at that time.” You should also take a home test about five days after any potential exposure to the virus, he adds.
If your test is positive, self-quarantine or isolate yourself appropriately – even if it means having to skip something important in your life. Forman says you might also see your doctor about antiviral treatment. like Paxlovidwhich is becoming increasingly available to treat Covid infections.
“Paxlovid works best if used to treat patients early, which means testing is even more important now than it was a few months ago,” he says.
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