If you have been watching the COVID curves in the US, you know that the news has been really good. That’s because cases have been falling since mid-January. On January 14, 2022, the Washington Post reported 986,036 cases of COVID. On March 31, 2022 the paper reported 12,661. That is a huge improvement in just 10 weeks. On Feb. 1, 2022, there were over 4,000 daily deaths. This past Thursday (March 31) there were only 362 deaths reported. The seven day average was 704 for the last week. This is all very good news indeed! But the Omicron variant BA.2 has arrived and is highly transmissible. It is surging in Europe and we are starting to see worrisome signs in the US.
Letting Down Our Guard:
In the middle of the Omicron surge last winter, a lot of people were being careful. They weren’t eating out in restaurants, going to sporting events or returning to the office. The original Omicron variant (BA.1) was incredibly infectious and even people who were vaccinated were coming down with COVID.
Now, though, people have given up wearing masks and have stopped worrying about COVID. They are getting together with friends and family. Many are heading back to the office. Families are going out to eat, attending concerts and sporting events and embracing “normal” behaviors.
The BA.2 Boomerang:
We get it. After more than two years, we all want to forget about COVID and pretend it’s done with us. There’s one little problem. Public health authorities are watching the new variant spread and case reports climb. They’re concerned about BA.2. That’s true in the US and many parts of Europe.
We scan COVID case reports carefully. That’s because the UK is often two to three weeks ahead of us. If you look at recent history, you will note that the original Omicron variant BA.1 surge curves look surprisingly similar in Britain, Australia, Japan, France, Italy, Germany and the US.
Infections in the UK peaked around January 5, 2022, and came down rapidly. We hoped the US would soon follow. Sure enough, that started happening January 15, 2022. For over two months Americans have been delighted to watch COVID disappear.
What Goes Down Can Also Go Up…Again!
Sadly, the downward curve in the UK reversed on Feb. 25, 2022. The case count went from 31,885 to 112,666 yesterday. That is not a desirable trend! Other countries that have seen COVID cases returning include Germany, France, Italy, Greece, Australia and Japan.
BA.2 dominates the COVID resurgence around the world. Some researchers call it the “stealth” variant because it is harder to track than BA.1. Although more transmissible, it does not appear to be more dangerous than BA.1. The elderly, people who are immunocompromised and those who aren’t vaccinated will be most vulnerable.
COVID Comes Back…Will It Surge?
Just like us, people around the world are ready to be done with COVID. Unfortunately, the coronavirus doesn’t seem to be ready to leave any of us alone just yet.
Many European countries that have dropped mask mandates are seeing cases rise. BA.2 dominates. This variant now accounts for 86% of all the cases that have been sequenced.
What’s more concerning is that deaths are going up in Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK. This is happening as immunity afforded by the last shot is beginning to wear off.
BA.2 in the US:
Overall cases are not yet climbing in the US, but BA.2 is gaining ground. It now accounts for more than half of new COVID cases around the country. That means it may be following the European trajectory.
Because Europe often trends a couple of weeks ahead of the US, we should be alert for signs that we too could face rising infection rates soon.What happens in Europe or China does not stay in Europe or China. We should have learned that lesson long ago.
A week or so ago, almost all states were reporting declining COVID cases. On March 31, 2022 the following states were all reporting increases in daily cases:
Hospitalizations were up in Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Alaska, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Deaths, the ultimate “lagging indicator,” were up in Nebraska, Rhode Island, West Virginia, North Dakota, Oregon, Tennessee, Ohio, Maryland, New Mexico and Arizona.
What will you do if COVID comes back? We know a lot of people are eager to forget about it, regardless of case counts or severity. “Living with COVID” has become a motto for many. Others are not ready to face the possibility of developing long COVID.
The Sewage Early Warning System:
Why are we sending warning signals when everyone is so desperate to move on? Although COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths have all been dropping in the US, experts are keeping a close eye on sewage.
Wastewater surveillance is one way of tracking asymptomatic COVID cases. At many sites the prevalence of the virus in sewage is rising quickly. In fact, CDC data show an increase at about one-third of the sites in its system. Roughly 15 percent of the sites had a big jump of around 1,000 percent. The last time we checked, roughly 150 wastewater sites are detecting signs of COVID.
There are a lot of gaps in these data, as not all states participate in wastewater surveillance. Nevertheless, public health officials consider these data to be an early warning signal that we could start to see another COVID-19 bump in coming weeks.
If COVID Comes Back, Americans Want to Ignore It:
We are nearing one million deaths in the US due to COVID-19. Many Americans would like to pretend that has not happened. We still get messages that it is all a fraud. They insist that these people would have died anyway from heart attacks, car accidents or falling helicopter blades. They just happened to be infected with the coronavirus.
We will not engage in that debate. Mortality statistics demonstrate unequivocally that a lot more people have died in the last two years than “normal.” Something horrible happened, whether we want to admit it or not. Here is a link to cold hard numbers demonstrating how life expectancy dropped dramatically in 2021.
The Latest Mortality Stats:
Here are the latest mortality statistics (The Lancet, March 10, 2022):
“Understanding the true mortality impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is crucial for public health decision making. Our analysis suggests that 18·2 million people died globally because of the COVID-19 pandemic (as measured by excess mortality) between the beginning of the pandemic (Jan 1, 2020) and the end of Dec 2021, which is 3·07-times higher than the reported number of COVID-19-related deaths. Our findings indicate that the full impact of the pandemic has been much greater than what is suggested by official statistics.”
The “official” death toll is just over 6 million people.
As one demographer and population-health expert stated (Nature, March 10, 2022):
“Excess deaths are a good indicator of COVID-19 deaths”
Why Will Americans Deny COVID Comes Back?
Dr. Eric Topol is one of the country’s premier scientists. He was chairman of the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. He is the Founder and Director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, Professor, Molecular Medicine, and Executive Vice-President of Scripps Research. We have been honored to interview Dr. Topol many times on our syndicated public radio show, The People’s Pharmacy. Here is a link to the most recent conversation we had with him about COVID-19.
Dr. Topol wrote a powerful article in The Guardian (March 16, 2022) titled:
He introduces his article this way:
“When it comes to Covid, the United States specializes in denialism. Deny the human-to-human transmission of the virus when China’s first cases were publicized in late 2019. Deny that the virus is airborne. Deny the need for boosters across all adult age groups. There are many more examples, but now one stands out – learning from other countries.”
In this article, Dr. Topol points out that Americans have been reactive rather than proactive. We have been slow to recognize that there is a problem. Remember when we were told COVID would disappear in a couple of weeks? Ooops.
According to Dr. Topol, we are getting our sixth warning from Europe:
“As with the first five warnings from the UK and Europe, the United States did not take heed. Instead of proactively gearing up with non-pharmaceutical interventions (masks, quality of masks, distancing, air filtration, ventilation, aggressive testing, etc.), it just reacted to the surges when they were manifest. Now we are at a point with very low vaccination and booster rates, only 64% of the population has had two shots, and 29% three shots. That puts the United States at 65th and 70th in the world ranking of countries, respectively.”
He goes on to suggest that there is a “gaping hole in our immunity wall.” Congress just rejected a request for substantially more money for the American Pandemic Prepared Plan (AP3). The highly effective oral medication, Paxlovid, remains in short supply. And China is about to explode with country-wide COVID cases.
We hope we are wrong! We hope Dr. Topol is wrong. We pray that we have seen the last of the coronavirus. But when COVID comes back, we hope that America will be ready to respond quickly to a new surge. And we hope that you, dear reader, stay safe, do not catch the coronavirus and do not develop long COVID symptoms.
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