Covid rises in US amid muted warnings and foggy data

CHICAGO – Covid-19 is spreading again across the United States, which experts believe most contagious There is no pandemic option yet.

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

In Chicago, where the county’s Covid alert level was raised to “high” last week, the city’s chief medical officer said there was no reason for residents to let the virus control their lives. The Louisiana state health director compared the new spike in Covid cases there to a downpour – “a surge within a surge” – but described the situation as worrying but not worrisome.

And Public Health Officer in King County, Washington, Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, said Thursday that officials were discussing reissuing the mask mandate but would prefer that the public wear masks voluntarily. “We cannot have an endless series of mandates forcing people to do this and that and that,” he said.

The latest spike, driven by a spike in BA.5 sub-variant cases in that country since May, has seen infections rise in at least 40 states, especially in the Great Plains, west and south. Hospital admissions have risen 20 percent in the past two weeks, leaving more than 40,000 people on average in American hospitals with coronavirus per day.

More than two years into the pandemic, however, public health officials are sounding only silent warnings amid the picture they hope vaccines, treatments and immune boosts are changing. Mortality is growing, but so far very modestly in this new wave. And state and local health officials say they must now also consider a reality that is evident on the streets from Seattle to New York: Most Americans are meeting the new wave of Covid with a collective shrug, avoiding masks, joining crowds indoors and moving around. from the endless barrage of virus warnings of the past months.

“I firmly believe that you can’t just scream like a wolf all the time,” the doctor said. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Health, said she would wait to see if hospitals become overwhelmed before considering another citywide mask-wearing mandate. “I want to keep the mask requirements or update the vaccine requirements in case there’s a big change.”

Understanding this BA.5 wave in the country is complicated by lack of data. Never since the first months of the pandemic has there been so little accurate information about the number of actual infections in the United States. As public testing sites have closed and home testing — if people get tested at all — has become commonplace, public data has become sparse and fragmented.

Nevertheless, according to experts, the outlines of a new wave are undeniable.

“You don’t have to count every drop of rain to know it’s raining,” the doctor said. Joseph Kanter, State Medical Officer and Medical Director for the State of Louisiana. “And it’s pouring right now.”

In that state, the health department is analyzing a wide range of data to track the spread of the virus, including the number of cases, samples from a growing network of sewage testing sites, test positivity rates and hospitalization rates.

The BA.5 subvariant, first identified in South Africa in January and spreading to several European countries, was responsible for 1 percent of cases in the United States in mid-May, but now accounts for at least two-thirds of new cases. in the country.

Anita Kurian, assistant director of the San Antonio Department of Health, said the number of cases in the area has been on the rise for six consecutive weeks. But some indicators, such as the low number of deaths so far, suggest the country is entering a newer and less deadly phase of the pandemic, in which vaccines and treatments have greatly improved the chances of survival, she said.

“We are nowhere near where we were with previous surges,” she said.

So far, the number of hospitalizations and deaths from the current wave pales in comparison to previous surges. During the peak of the Omicron surge in early 2022, about 159,000 people were hospitalized on any given day.

Experts warn that forecasting the coming months is difficult, especially given the high transmission rate of BA.5. Words of caution from national health officials have gradually become more intense in recent weeks.

However, while the federal health authorities have again urged people to get tested for Covid before attending large indoor gatherings or visiting particularly vulnerable immunocompromised people, they strike a delicate balance by telling Americans that while they don’t have to break their life, they should pay attention to the threat of Covid.

“We shouldn’t let this ruin our lives,” the doctor says. Anthony S. Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser on the virus, said at a White House briefing in which he added that new options may continue to emerge. “But we can’t deny that this is a reality that we need to deal with.”

As health officials in many places avoided imposing new virus restrictions during the recent surge, California has been an exception. There, public health authorities issued stern warnings and began reintroducing restrictions.

The warnings were triggered by worrying data, experts said. Walgreens said more than half of its Covid testing is done at its California stores. returned with positive results. Bay Area Wastewater Research suggest that this surge may be the largest.

And the number of weekly coronavirus deaths in Los Angeles County has doubled from about 50 a month ago to 100 last week. Mortality is still below the level of the winter Omicron surge, when more than 400 people died in the county every week.

Officials in Los Angeles say they plan to reinstate the mandatory indoor mask ban later this month. Barbara Ferrer, the county’s director of public health, said even a small increase in the number of masks would help slow the transmission of the virus.

“I like everyone else: I hate wearing this mask. But more than that, I hate the thought that I might accidentally pass it on to someone else,” Ferrer said. “This is my biggest fear — that we are so eager to end this virus that we are calming down.”

Charles Chiu, an infectious disease specialist and virologist at the University of California, San Francisco, says patient data suggests BA.5 does not cause more severe disease in patients than other Omicron variants. But he says he’s concerned that this variant is so contagious and so capable of bypassing vaccination and prior infection protections that it can’t be stopped.

“We don’t seem to be able to control it,” he said.

Dr. Chiu said he was sympathetic to the duty of government officials to mitigate the spread of the virus. They stand up to a public that is irritated by the updated directives, even in parts of the country where people used to be most willing to obey them. In places where Covid mitigation measures are mandatory, such as the New York subway, mask-wearing rules are mandatory. increasingly spotty.

“Healthcare workers face an impossible task here. Chiu said.

In New York, the number of positive tests, cases and hospitalizations is on the rise. But health officials have resisted reissuing mandates for masks, and many residents said they weren’t worried, counting on vaccines, immunity from previous infections and antivirals to protect against serious illness. The city no longer has a contact tracing system and does not require proof of vaccination to enter restaurants.

In Louisiana, officials have watched the number of Covid hospitalizations in the state rise, but they say the numbers are still much lower than during previous surges, when more than 2,000 residents were hospitalized from time to time.

“I feel much more confident that we have the ability to protect ourselves,” says the doctor. Kanter said.

At the height of the Louisiana delta wave in 2021, about 20 percent of hospitalized Covid patients were on a ventilator, Dr. Francis said. Kanter, state sanitary doctor and medical director. That figure dropped to 10 percent during Omicron’s initial surge in the state and is now less than 5 percent.

For the people most at risk of serious Covid illness, the feeling that public health warnings have abated has been no consolation and has actually made them more worried than ever about getting infected.

Neida Bonilla, 48, of Mission, Texas, was diagnosed with breast cancer in April. With cases on the rise in South Texas, she now worries that an infection during chemotherapy could be catastrophic to her health.

She has received all of the vaccines and boosters available to her, she now wears a surgical mask in public, and rarely leaves the house, except as an administrator for an ambulance company, she said.

“I hope people open their eyes,” she said. “We never had to take off our masks. It’s not over yet.”

However, even in some cities whose residents have been taking precautions against Covid throughout the pandemic, the latest surge has not caused widespread alarm.

In Berkeley, California, Jeff Shepler, CEO of Spanish Table, a specialty store selling Iberian wines and food, said he goes to giant games across the bay in San Francisco and recently attended a Pearl Jam concert at the Oakland Coliseum. and don’t hesitate to shake hands.

“I got tired of wearing a mask all day, every day,” he said. “I am at that point in my life where I have the vaccine and I have Covid. I guess I’m relatively safe.”

Julie Bosman reported from Chicago, Thomas Fuller from San Francisco and Edgar Sandoval from San Antonio. Report has been provided Soumya Carlamangla, Eliza Fawcett, Sarah Cahalanas well as Holly Secon.