Crowded indoor events and sold-out flights where masks are few and far between suggest the pandemic is a distant, unpleasant memory.
In fact, Covid-19 cases have been steadily increasing nationwide since late March. Hospitalization and death rates remain low and are likely to remain so. But beyond that, many experts say they are unable to predict the path of the current surge, including how and when it will end.
Given the last two years of pandemic precedent, this is somewhat surprising – and one of many indicators that the continued rise in cases is markedly different from previous Covid surges. Some experts say it could even mark the start of the country’s “new normal”.
Here’s why, and what it means for the future of the pandemic:
Why everyone you know is catching Covid these days
Previous outbreaks have been caused by the emergence of new variants of Covid. This surge is fueled primarily by declining immunities, says Dr. David Dowdy, associate professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and physician at Baltimore Medical Services.
The immunity people gained while recovering from the omicron surge in December and January is fading, allowing omicron and its subvariants “to do [their] spinning again,” Dowdy told CNBC Make It. And many Americans are no longer taking particularly strict Covid precautions, assuming that if they get sick they’ll likely recover without ever being hospitalized.
Taken together, that helps explain the past two months of rising cases: The nation’s seven-day rolling average of daily new cases is at 109,032 on Wednesday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That large number is likely a significant undercount, with many people now relying on home testing – and not reporting their results – or avoiding Covid testing altogether.
“We see this disconnect between the ‘official’ number of cases, for example, and the percentage positivity or other indicators like sewage monitoring,” Dowdy says.
How to assess whether you should be concerned
The winter omicron wave had an incredibly steep peak. In contrast, this one is driven more by “a lot of mini-waves coming and going,” says Dr. Howard P. Forman, director of the healthcare management program at the Yale School of Public Health.
Forman says the geographic circulation of the virus is different this time around: when New York is struggling, for example, Florida can do just fine, and vice versa. These regional waves are often driven by different omicron subvariants – sometimes several at once – making the virus even more difficult to control. Forman says this is likely what Covid will look like for the foreseeable future.
This does not mean reinstating lockdowns or mask mandates. On the contrary, Forman says, people should be prepared to adjust their behavior and take necessary precautions in the event of an outbreak in their area – using metrics such as hospitalization rates instead of daily new cases to gauge the local gravity.
“People need to understand that we’re still going to have some real waves and concerning new variants, and they need to continue to be careful and treat this as if it’s still a pandemic,” Forman says.
This could be a glimpse of the ‘new normal’
The number of cases in the United States could eventually fall back to its levels of early March. Or, it could be a glimpse of what Covid-19 looks like as an endemic virus – in other words, our “new normal”.
Either way, instead of trying to live like it’s 2019 again, Forman recommends incorporating Covid prevention strategies into your daily routine. That mainly means, he says, staying up to date on your vaccines and familiarizing yourself with home self-testing on a semi-regular basis.
Dowdy says you should take a home test an hour before you go to a big event or visit loved ones because “that will be the best indication of your level of contagiousness at that time.” You should also take a home test about five days after any potential exposure to the virus, he adds.
If you test positive, self-quarantine or isolate yourself appropriately, even if it means having to skip something important in your life. Forman says you could also see your doctor about an antiviral treatment like Paxlovid, which is becoming increasingly available to treat Covid infections.
“Paxlovid works best if used to treat patients early, which means testing is even more important now than it was a few months ago,” he says.
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