Baltimore Sun

COVID-19 surges through US again

Health alerts more muted, data not so clear in latest spike

- By Julie Bosman, Thomas Fuller and Edgar Sandoval

COVID-19 is surging around the United States again in what experts consider the most transmissi­ble variant of the pandemic yet.

But something is different this time: The public health authoritie­s are holding back.

In Chicago, where the county’s COVID-19 warning level was raised to “high” last week, the city’s top doctor said there was no reason for residents to let the virus control their lives. The state health director in Louisiana likened a new rise in COVID-19 cases there to a downpour — “a surge within a surge” — but characteri­zed the situation as concerning but not alarming.

The latest surge, driven by a spike of BA.5 subvariant cases in this country since May, has sent infections rising in at least 40 states, particular­ly in the Great Plains, West and South. Hospitaliz­ations have climbed by 20% in the last two weeks, leaving more than 40,000 people in American hospitals with the coronaviru­s on an average day.

More than two years after the pandemic began, though, public health officials are sounding only quiet warnings amid a picture that they hope has been changed by vaccines, treatments and rising immunity. Deaths are rising, but only modestly so far in this new wave. And state and local public health

officials say they also must now factor in a reality that is obvious along the streets from Seattle to New York City: Most Americans are meeting a new COVID-19 wave with a collective shrug, shunning masks, joining crowds indoors and moving on from the endless barrage of virus warnings of months past.

Complicati­ng the country’s understand­ing of this BA.5 wave is a dearth of data. Not since the earliest months of the pandemic has there been so little precise informatio­n about the number of actual infections in the United States. As public testing sites have

closed and at-home testing — if people test at all — has grown common, the publicly reported data has become scarce and spotty.

Still, experts say, the outlines of a new wave are undeniable.

“You don’t have to count every raindrop to know it’s raining,” said Dr. Joseph Kanter, Louisiana’s state health officer and medical director. “And it’s pouring right now.”

Anita Kurian, an assistant director for the health department in San Antonio, said cases have been rising in the area for six weeks in a row. But some measures, like the low number of deaths so

far, suggest that the nation is entering a newer and less lethal stage of the pandemic in which vaccines and treatments have significan­tly improved chances of survival, she said.

“We are nowhere at the level where we were with the previous surges,” she said.

So far, the current wave’s toll of hospitaliz­ations and deaths pales in comparison to previous spikes. During the peak of the omicron surge in early 2022, close to 159,000 people were hospitaliz­ed on any given day.

Experts caution that predicting the months ahead is difficult, particular­ly given

the high transmissi­bility of BA.5. Words of caution from national health leaders have slowly increased in intensity in recent weeks.

Still, even as federal health authoritie­s reiterated calls for people to test for COVID-19 before attending large indoor gatherings or visiting especially vulnerable, immunocomp­romised people, they are striking a delicate balance, telling Americans that while they do not need to upend their lives, they must pay attention to the COVID-19 threat.

“We should not let it disrupt our lives,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser on the virus, said at a White House news briefing in which he added that new variants could continue to emerge. “But we cannot deny that it is a reality that we need to deal with.”

As health officials in many places have avoided issuing new virus restrictio­ns during the latest surge, California has stood out as an exception. There, public health authoritie­s have issued stark warnings and moved toward reimposing restrictio­ns.

The warnings have been spurred by worrisome data, experts said. Walgreens said that more than half of the COVID-19 tests administer­ed at its California stores have returned with positive results. Surveys of wastewater in the Bay Area suggest this surge could be the biggest yet.

And the number of weekly deaths in Los Angeles County from the coronaviru­s has doubled from around 50 a month ago to 100 last week. The deaths are still below the levels of the winter omicron surge, when more than 400 were dying weekly in the county.

Officials in Los Angeles say they plan to reinstate a countywide indoor mask mandate as early as the end of this month. Barbara Ferrer, the public health director in the county, said that even a slight increase in masking would help slow transmissi­on of the virus.

“I’m like everyone else: I hate wearing that mask. But more than that, I hate the idea that I might accidental­ly transmit to somebody else,” Ferrer said. “That’s my biggest fear — that we’re so anxious to be done with this virus that we’re getting complacent.”

 ?? EMILY KASK/THE NEW YORK TIMES ?? Grocery workers wear masks last week while helping a customer in New Orleans. The BA.5 variant of COVID-19 is dominating a surge of new infections, but many health officials say this is cause for caution, not alarm.
EMILY KASK/THE NEW YORK TIMES Grocery workers wear masks last week while helping a customer in New Orleans. The BA.5 variant of COVID-19 is dominating a surge of new infections, but many health officials say this is cause for caution, not alarm.

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