Here we go again. The United States and many other nations appear to be starting another covid wave due to an omicron subvariant that is more transmissible than the last. But this time looks different. Cases are going up, but so far without the accompanying serious disease and death that characterized earlier waves. That should not lead to complacency.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, daily new cases in the United States are at 87,382 on average and in recent days have broken through 100,000, four times the level of mid-March. That’s higher than occurred during the first summer of the pandemic, and is most certainly a serious undercount since many people are testing at home and not reporting. The spread is being propelled by subvariant BA.2.12.1, which is 25 percent more transmissible than was the previous BA.2, which was 30 percent more transmissible than the original omicron. While the virus hasn’t yet reached the level of ultra-transmissible measles, it is climbing ever higher, reports scientist Eric Topol. This means that tens of millions of the unvaccinated remain fertile territory for infection, and some who were infected by the first omicron may be susceptible to reinfection. Omicron had a quick spike and decline in South Africa, and again in the United States. But there’s no clarity on the shape or duration of a coming wave, except that cases are rising, centered now on the Northeast.
New covid hospital admissions are also rising, from an average of 1,427 on April 5 to 2,656 in the latest report. But ICU beds occupied nationwide by covid cases are at a low point of the pandemic, and a very small proportion of total ICU capacity. Deaths are still falling from the omicron peak. Both probably reflect the considerable immunity built up from vaccines and natural infections, although no one knows how durable it will be. Overall, this wave may mark another step from pandemic emergency to a predictable endemic phase of living with the virus.
Clearly, we are a long way from the fraught early days of 2020, and another wave should not trigger the same alarm. But given the transmissibility of the latest variant, wearing face masks indoors in crowded situations remains an important defense measure, and it matters that they are quality and properly fitted. Frequent testing — even with the less precise antigen rapid tests — is another line of defense. And vaccines remain effective and free. We’d like to see boosters for all, and the rollout of vaccines for the very young as soon as possible.
Congress is dallying over the $10 billion covid relief bill, and every week of delay will prove costly in the fall. The Biden administration was rash in predicting 100 million infections in the autumn based on modeling; no one really knows that far ahead. But two new subvariants have already emerged in South Africa. The new phase of the pandemic should lead everyone to be soberly realistic about the possibility of more variants and new waves. Less alarmed, but more prepared.