Published on July 07, 2022

A reprieve from COVID-19, but the threat remains

With summer in full swing, more people are spending time outside. While outdoor recreation is a great way to escape the day-to-day grind, experts say COVID-19 should still be front and center in people’s minds.

“What we have seen in years past is an increase in COVID cases as more people hit the beach or gather in larger crowds to enjoy their favorite summer activities,” said Dr. Bertha Ayi, an infectious disease specialist at Essentia Health.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows this summer spike typically starts as June winds down. While it is usually a smaller bump than we see in late fall and winter, it nonetheless demands our attention, said Dr. Ayi.

“While we do expect this year’s spike to be smaller than years past due to increased vaccination rates and children 6 months and older now getting their shot, you can never be too careful when it comes to protecting yourself and the community around you,” said Dr. Ayi.

While vaccination is the surest way to prevent severe illness, protecting yourself also includes being aware of new variants. The BA.4 and BA.5 variants have emerged and are driving the most recent uptick in case numbers in the United Kingdom and Australia. The reproductive number (R0) is a way of measuring how infectious a biologic agent is. Initially, the Wuhan strain had a R0 of three. The BA.4/5 strains have a R0 of 18.6. This is akin to measles, the disease with the highest R0 to date. That means if you get one of these variants, you could infect up to 18 people — vs. three for the original SARS-Co-V2 virus.

These strains spread almost as fast as measles. After the scientific world became aware of them about six months ago, omicron subvariants have become the dominant strain among new COVID cases in the U.S., according to estimates from the CDC.

Dr. Ayi said these two new variants have exhibited the ability to elude some of the antibodies produced after COVID vaccination or infection, including earlier versions of omicron. The chances of reinfection with this strain appear higher even among vaccinated and previously infected individuals. Still, vaccines are expected to provide a substantial shield against severe illness.

“Make sure you have received your full COVID-19 vaccine series and wear your mask if you will be around a large crowd,” said Dr. Ayi.

With these recent developments, Dr. Ayi doesn’t expect the pandemic to be downgraded to an endemic anytime soon.

“Labeling COVID an endemic could put up roadblocks to measures in place used to combat the spread of this disease,” she said.

Essentially, classifying it as an endemic could make it harder to impose mask mandates and crowd restrictions, implement widespread testing and other means designed to slow the spread and keep communities safe. It also would make it more difficult for pharmaceutical companies to get emergency use authorizations for vaccinations, monoclonal antibodies and other drugs designed to treat symptoms of the virus.

Peaks also limit the ability to label it an endemic from a scientific standpoint, Dr. Ayi said.

“If it was truly an endemic, we wouldn’t see these large surges from time to time and they wouldn’t be so unpredictable,” she said. “An endemic typically has more predictable rates of circulation. Take the flu for instance — we know that every year we are going to start seeing it circulate in late fall and lasting through the early portions of the winter.”

 Dr. Ayi acknowledges that people are probably feeling the impacts of pandemic fatigue, but she said they still need to be vigilant.

“Just because some of these variants have become less severe and transmission rates are lower than, say, a year ago doesn’t mean people aren’t still getting sick,” she said.

Data from the end of June showed COVID hospitalizations were up 6% over the final two weeks of the month, with an average of more than 31,000 people hospitalized nationwide. Daily COVID-related deaths were around 400 per day.

“That’s still too many deaths,” said Dr. Ayi. “These deaths are generally among people who are elderly, have multiple comorbidities or who are unvaccinated.”

She noted the uncertainty around long-haul symptoms (long COVID). Others are dealing with additional long-term implications, be it emotionally, mentally or financially.

“People are still dying from COVID, people are still grieving the loss of their loved ones to this terrible disease and people are still trying to get back on their feet after major economic shutdowns caused by the virus,” said Dr. Ayi. “I know people are anxious to return to normal, but the fact is we still need to check a few more boxes before we can declare victory.” 

Dr. Ayi said the next major milestone will come when herd immunity is established – something she says can’t happen until about 70% of the population is vaccinated. CDC data shows about 67% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated.

Dr. Ayi says now is not the time to let your guard down. We must stay mindful of the virus in order to avoid repeating history, in which we observe an increase in cases this time of year followed by a temporary decline before ramping back up as kids return to school and resume extracurricular activities.

While emergency rooms and ICUs aren’t as full as they have been in the past, Dr. Ayi said that could change, emphasizing the importance of remaining cognizant of health care workers and the stress they are under from battling this pandemic for more than two years.

“People should take a moment to appreciate their health care workers for how they have kept people safe throughout the pandemic,” she said. “They have gone above and beyond to ensure we are going beyond just high-quality patient care to reach our communities and keep them safe and healthy.”

If you have questions about how Essentia is managing the virus, please visit our COVID-19 page. More information on vaccines and their safety and efficacy, or how to schedule them through Essentia, can also be found on our vaccination page.