For now, cautious US is treading water with transformed COVID-19
The rapidly evolving coronavirus has started the summer in the US with many infections but relatively few deaths compared to its previous incarnations.
COVID-19 is still killing hundreds of Americans every day, but it’s nowhere near as dangerous as it was last fall and winter.
“It’s going to be a good summer and we deserve this break,” said Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics at the University of Washington in Seattle.
With more and more Americans protected from serious diseases by vaccination and infection, COVID-19 has become — at least for now — an uncomfortable, uncomfortable nuisance for many.
“Right now it feels cautiously good,” said Dr. Dan Kaul, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor. “For the first time that I can remember, pretty much since the beginning, we have no (COVID-19) patients in the ICU.”
As the nation celebrates the Fourth of July, the average number of daily deaths from COVID-19 in the United States is about 360. Last year, during a similar summer break, it was about 228 in early July. This remains the lowest Threshold for US daily deaths since March 2020, when the virus first spread across the US.
But last year far fewer cases were reported at this time – fewer than 20,000 a day. Now it’s about 109,000 – and likely an undercount given that home tests aren’t routinely reported.
Now in the third year of the pandemic, it’s easy to feel confused by the mixed picture: Repeat infections are becoming more and more likelyand a significant proportion of those infected will face the persistent symptoms of long COVID-19.
But the great danger of death has diminished for many people.
“And that’s because we’re now at a point where everyone’s immune system has seen either the virus or the vaccine two or three times so far,” said Dr. David Dowdy, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Over time, the body learns not to overreact when it sees this virus.”
“What we’re seeing is that, on average, people are getting less and less sick,” Dowdy said.
Up to 8 in 10 people in the US have been infected at least once, according to an influential model.
The death rate for COVID-19 has been a moving target but has recently fallen to the range of an average flu season, according to data analyzed by Arizona State University health industry researcher Mara Aspinall.
At first, some people said the coronavirus was no more deadly than the flu, “and for a long time that wasn’t true,” Aspinall said. Back then, people didn’t have immunity. Treatments were experimental. Vaccines don’t exist.
Now, Aspinall said, the built-up immunity has brought the death rate down to a solid level in the range of a typical flu season. Over the past decade, the mortality rate for influenza has ranged from about 5% to 13% of hospitalized patients.
Big differences separate flu from COVID-19: The behavior of the coronavirus continues to surprise health experts and it is still unclear whether it will settle into a flu-like seasonal pattern.
Last summer — when vaccines first became widely available in the US — followed the delta rise and then the arrival of omicron, which was killing 2,600 Americans a day at its peak last February.
Experts agree that a new variant capable of escaping the built-up immunity of the population could emerge. And the rapidly spreading omicron subtypes BA.4 and BA.5 could also contribute to a change in the number of deaths.
“We thought we got it until these new subvariants showed up,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, an infectious disease specialist at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas.
It would be wise, he said, to assume a new variant will come and hit the nation later this summer.
“And then another late fall-winter wave,” Hotez said.
Deaths could increase in many states over the next few weeks, but deaths in the US as a whole are likely to fall slightly, said Nicholas Reich, who works with the Centers for Disease Control to summarize coronavirus forecasts for the COVID-19 Forecast Hub and Prevention.
“We have seen COVID hospitalizations surge from just over 1,000 in early April to around 5,000 new admissions per day. But deaths from COVID have increased only slightly over the same period,” said Reich, a professor of biostatistics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Unvaccinated people are six times more likely to die from COVID-19 than people with at least one first shot, the CDC estimated based on available April data.
Consider your own vulnerability and that of those around you this summer, especially at large gatherings, because the virus is spreading so quickly, Dowdy said.
“There are still people who are very vulnerable,” he said.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.