There’s a mini ‘summer surge’ of Covid underway, but experts don’t yet know how bad it is

Public health officials say rise in cases is modest and not due to new variant

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Tuesday 08 August 2023 04:09 BST
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Public health officials are warning of a mild summer surge in Covid, as hot weather pushes people inside and others engage in summer travels and events. But recent changes to the disease-fighting infrastructure in the US, including the end of the federal Covid public health emergency, may be getting in the way of assessing the extent of the threat.

According to the most recent data released by the Centers for Disease Control, for the week ending in 22 July, hospitalisations were up 12 per cent from Covid, while emergency department visits were up 17 per cent, though deaths were still the lowest since the agency began keeping track, and hospitalisations were at nearly a sixth of their level during this same period last year.

“The U.S. has experienced increases in COVID-19 during the last three summers, so it’s not surprising to see an uptick after a long period of declining rates,” CDC spokesperson Kathleen Conley told NBC News of the data.

Experts noted that the modest increase doesn’t appear to suggest a new variant.

“We are now in the fourth summer of the coronavirus pandemic. Every summer thus far, the United States has seen an increase in Covid-19 cases,” Dr Leana Wen, emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, told CNN.

“It’s important to note that this current increase does not appear to be driven by the emergence of a new variant,” she added. “According to the CDC, all existing variants are offshoots of the Omicron strain, which first emerged in late 2021.”

As health officials look to respond to the bump in cases, they won’t have as many tools at their disposal as during previous periods of the pandemic.

The Biden administration stopped mailing free Covid tests in June, and the end of the public health emergency means the largests insurers don’t have to cover the tests anymore. Many of the home tests Americans purchased or were sent during previous periods are expiring, and Medicaid will stop providing tests in September of 2024.

“We are going to continue to see people hospitalized for covid for illnesses that could have been prevented had testing been freely and widely available,” William Schaffner, a professor who specializes in infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University, told The Washington Post.

What’s more, the end of the public health emergency in May meant the end of mandatory reporting of Covid data to the CDC, and widespread at-home testing over check-ups at official clinics means the extent of Covid around the country is being less well-captured than at previous times during the pandemic,

"We know that the counts we have on our dashboard are an estimate," Dr. Olivia Kasirye, public health officer for California’s Sacramento County told KCRA last month. "We just know that it’s not counting everybody because a lot of people either don’t get tested or are using the at-home kits."

In lieu of widespread, government-supervised testing, experts have looked to wastewater surveillance to monitor the spread of Covid. Even this comes with its own complications though.

In July, a new study found that wastewater surveillance was ceasing to be as accurate a predictor of official case rates or hospitalisation numbers than it was in previous years.

This, experts say, is not because waterwater surveillance itself is getting worse, but rather because of increasing immunity in the US population and because official counts are becoming less reliable due to at-home tests.

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