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It seems like everyone has COVID. Why this wave may be worse than official data suggests

Summer has not provided any respite from the relentless march of COVID-19 in the United States. Despite several weeks of rising virus levels, the extent of its spread remains somewhat elusive.

While federal data suggests that the current surge falls short of earlier peaks and significant outbreaks, anecdotal evidence paints a different picture. Many individuals, from family members to coworkers, report knowing someone currently battling COVID-19.

A health-focused nonprofit shared, “We have several folks down with COVID, unfortunately,” underlining the pervasive nature of the virus in communities.

While severe cases have remained relatively low, experts concur that the true extent of infections likely exceeds what current surveillance systems capture. Janet Hamilton, Executive Director of the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, noted, “There is more transmission out there than what the surveillance data indicates,” urging vigilance in light of a discernible increase.

From 2020 to 2022, the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation offered regular COVID-19 case rate estimates and trend projections. However, they suspended this modeling in December due to evolving reporting standards and changes in data sources, which rendered the margin of error too substantial for reliable predictions.

While no specific estimate for current case counts was provided, Ali Mokdad, a professor at the University of Washington, reported an uptick in inquiries about COVID-19, akin to late last year when the U.S. grappled with approximately 500,000 weekly cases during the Omicron surge.

Precarious measures of transmission

Monitoring COVID-19 trends has long posed challenges, and the proliferation of home tests and waning interest in testing have further complicated the task. The CDC discontinued its aggregate COVID-19 case count reports, recognizing their decreasing reliability.

Initially, hospitalization metrics seemed a reasonable substitute for assessing transmission levels. Hospitals regularly tested all patients, regardless of their presenting symptoms, thus serving as a proxy for community case rates. However, evolving testing practices in hospitals, influenced by shifting federal requirements and local risk assessments, hinder direct comparisons over time.

Nancy Foster of the American Hospital Association noted the transition from routine testing to a focus on symptomatic individuals, those exposed, or those in proximity to high-risk patients. Consequently, hospital admissions now reflect severity more than generalized transmission.

Many public health surveillance methods depend on individuals seeking clinical testing or treatment, behaviors that have evolved over the past few years. Wastewater surveillance, which monitors virus levels in sewage systems, offers a more consistent approach but lacks a direct translation to case counts.

Interpreting wastewater data proves intricate, as the amount of virus shed varies depending on factors such as vaccination status, previous infections, and the severity of current cases. While wastewater concentrations resemble those at the start of the pandemic, increased immunity among the population may now translate into more infected individuals with milder yet contagious infections.

Clear upward trends

Despite the uncertainty surrounding exact case numbers, experts underscore the alarming trends in available data.

Weekly hospital admissions have nearly doubled in the past month, with a 19% increase in the most recent week, as per CDC data. Test positivity rates, reflected in a federal surveillance program, have tripled over the past two months.

There are glimmers of hope, such as wastewater levels potentially stabilizing and relatively low hospitalization rates indicating a reduced risk of severe disease for many. However, the U.S. must confront the reality of COVID-19’s persistent presence.

Dr. Deborah Birx, former coordinator of the White House Coronavirus Response Task Force, cautioned against treating COVID-19 like the flu, emphasizing its more frequent waves, increased severity, higher mortality rate, and potential for long-term complications. Vigilance through measures like masking and vaccination remains crucial, especially as COVID-19 converges with the broader respiratory virus season.

Experts stress the importance of practicing good respiratory etiquette and considering individual health status in interactions as the nation navigates this ongoing public health challenge.

Moriah Ballard
Moriah Ballard
Moriah Ballard joined the KPRC 2 digital team in the fall of 2021. Prior to becoming a digital content producer in Southeast Texas and a Houstonian, Moriah was an award-winning radio host in her hometown of Lorain, Ohio and previously worked as a producer/content creator in Cleveland. Her faith, family, and community are her top passions.


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