COVID cases in the U.S. rose more than 25% last week compared to the week before, and new subvariants are swirling. However, many people have been going maskless in grocery stores and at large events such as Coachella, The Met Gala, and The White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. So where does the U.S. stand right now?
“This virus continues to throw 210 mile [per hour] curveballs at us all the time. … We don't know which virus is going to show up tomorrow that will then have a tremendous impact on where this pandemic goes,” says Dr. Michael Osterholm, head of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. He also formerly advised President Biden on the pandemic response.
He adds that another big surge in cases could happen, even among people who were previously infected and vaccinated. But right now, there are no big increases in hospitalizations, which signals that vaccines are protecting people against serious illness and death.
“But again, I have to emphasize … depending on what this virus does, how it changes genetically, it could totally change that picture overnight.”
Keeping (and losing) track of variants
“Now we're learning that it's not just new variants. … If you think about going from Alpha to Beta, and Gamma to Delta to Omicron, etc. … now we're seeing variants of variants. … We now have BA.1, BA.2, BA.2.12.1, BA.4, BA.5, all of these have different characteristics. … The more they evolve, the more infectious they become, the more transmissible they are,” Osterholm explains.
He adds that the virus is changing in a meaningful way that affects our protection against it, and now it’s equally infectious as measles.
How should we live our daily lives?
Osterholm emphasizes his concern for long-haul COVID, which includes brain fog, severe fatigue, challenges to the heart and lungs, and more.
“I have friends and colleagues who have long COVID. [They] were very active people who really were among the best of the health professionals I know, who now are basically at home, unable to even get out of bed many days or to go to work. That I think is a reason why you want to protect yourself.”
That means being fully vaccinated and using high-level protection such as an N95 mask in public places, rather than a cloth or surgical mask, he points out.
Be cautious about dining at restaurants too, he suggests. “If I go to a restaurant and I eat and drink, what is it that we would think that a virus would take a vacation while you're eating and drinking?”
He continues, “Then on top of it, we see that even for people who do wear some kind of respiratory protection, up to a quarter of them routinely wear it under their nose. That's like shutting three of the five doors on your submarine before you take off. … One of the challenges we have today is adequate protection.”