COVID-19 cases are plummeting in Pennsylvania and across the country to levels not seen since before last summer’s nasty delta variant took hold. Face mask requirements have been lifted. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s risk maps have changed from warning colors of red and orange to reassuring yellow and green.
So why do many health experts feel uneasy?
There are disturbing signs on the horizon that this could be a short reprieve from the virus, which is now in its third year of upending our lives. Cases are rising sharply in Europe and Asia, due to a more transmissible subline of the super-contagious omicron variant that has driven cases up over the winter. And this new sub-variant – which has been dubbed “stealth omicron” – is steadily gaining traction in the United States.
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“We should definitely be concerned,” said Dr. Eric Topol, executive vice president of Scripps Research in La Jolla and a professor of molecular medicine. “We’re going to see a significant increase here.”
The director-general of the World Health Organization said on Thursday that “after several weeks of decline, reported cases of COVID-19 are increasing again around the world, particularly in parts of Asia”, and said added that due to reduced testing, “the cases we are seeing are just the tip of the iceberg.”
“The pandemic is not over,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Gebreyesus.
WHO’s Dr Maria Van Kerkhove attributed the global rise in cases to the time of the spread of the BA.2 variant, just as many countries, especially in Europe, have relaxed public health measures like the requirement of face masks and limitation of crowds.
She warned that confusing messages from government and public health officials have led to “misinformation that omicron is mild, misinformation that the pandemic is over, misinformation that it is the last variant to which we will have to face”.
What does this mean for us here in Pennsylvania and the rest of the country? Topol and other experts are troubled that many states have eased pandemic restrictions in recent weeks, and the United States has lower vaccination and booster rates than other countries. experiencing spikes in infections. In the past, outbreaks in the United States have only followed outbreaks abroad for a few weeks.
Consider the comparison with countries with significant cases: the UK and Germany in Europe and South Korea and Vietnam in Asia. The percentage of the population fully vaccinated is 74% in the UK and 76% in Germany, and both countries report that 58% are boosted, according to data from The New York Times. South Korea is 86% fully vaccinated and 62% strengthened, Vietnam 80% fully vaccinated and 44% strengthened.
The same data shows the US is 65% fully vaccinated and 29% boosted.
“It’s happening here in a place near you,” Topol said. “It’s just a matter of time.”
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According to at least one measure considered an early indicator of viral activity, this is already happening. Of the 485 sanitation systems the CDC is monitoring across the country for the COVID-19 virus, 193 have reported increases over the past week.
In California, Santa Clara County health officer Dr. Sara Cody said BA.2 was already present in sewage from the north end of the county, although virus infection levels remained. low across the county and that cases have not reversed their downward trend.
“It doesn’t drive levels up overall,” Cody said. “I don’t know why, but it’s not. But we’re watching this very, very carefully here and elsewhere.”
Dr. John Swartzberg, professor emeritus of infectious diseases and vaccinology at UC Berkeley, said the BA.2 subvariant is 30% more transmissible than the BA.1 omicron subvariant that drove the record rise in winter cases. Reports from the UK show that the growth of the subvariant coincided with the recovery in the number of cases in the country, with the BA.2 rising from 52% of cases on February 20 to 83% on March 6.
The sub-variant has yet to reach these levels in the United States. But Swartzberg noted that it rose rapidly, from 4% on February 19 to 7% on February 26 to 14% on March 5 and 23% on March 12.
“It’s doubling here about every week, which means if it continues, it should become the dominant variant we’ll be dealing with here in the United States within two weeks,” he said. “We will be dealing with a variant that is around 30% more transmissible in a few weeks, if not sooner.”
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The highly contagious virus has infected several high-profile political leaders over the past week, including former President Barack Obama, Vice President Kamala Harris’ husband Doug Emhoff and San Jose Rep. Zoe Lofgren.
Even so, officials in Washington, while acknowledging the threat, are not sounding the alarm, saying that with funding for tests, treatments and vaccines – the White House has requested $22.5 billion – the country is well positioned to handle COVID-19 outbreaks.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday that BA.2 “has been around here for some time” and that “we are closely monitoring and monitoring the situation in Europe and China.”
“But we know that the tools the United States has — including mRNA vaccines, therapies, and tests — are all effective tools against this variant,” Psaki said.
Those comments have left health experts like Swartzberg feeling like Cassandra from Greek mythology as they watch COVID-19 surges abroad and warn that relaxed public health measures here are still needed.
“You can see the future, but no one is listening to you,” Swartzberg said. “At the end of the day, we’re just not done with this virus.”