COVID Cases Are Surging… Again

Since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, there have been two surges in COVID cases and deaths every year, one in the winter and one in the summer. Because of this, it was predicted that the U.S. would seen a new surge this summer and epidemiology data indicates that it is now starting. The graph below shows the COVID death winter surges in red and summer surges in black.

However, the peaks in COVID deaths lag about 3 weeks behind the peaks in cases. The typical timeline for a person who dies of COVID is to develop initial symptoms one week before hospitalization and then have a 2-week hospitalization before death. COVID hospitalizations in the United States are now beginning to rise. In the graph below, the weekly new hospital admission number has been increasing for the past two weeks and currently number weekly hospitalizations are 8,035, up 12% from the week before.

An even earlier indicator of COVID surges is the COVID test percent positivity. The percentage of COVID tests that are positive starts to rise before the number of hospitalizations and even before the total number of cases. The graph below shows The test percent positivity in yellow and the deaths in blue.

In the graph above, we can see that the test percent positivity began to increase in early July 2023, suggesting that a COVID surge is eminent. But the COVID percent positivity data can be inaccurate because it is dependent on COVID tests that are reported to health departments. Since many people do home tests that are not reported to health departments, many positive (and negative) tests will be missed.

Another harbinger of COVID surges is the percentage of emergency department visits that are due to COVID infections. Because initial symptoms precede hospitalizations by a week or two, people infected with COVID will often present to the ER before getting sick enough to require admission to the hospital. The graph below shows that surges in the percentage of ED visits that are due to COVID (yellow) precede surges in COVID deaths (blue) by several weeks. Once again, we see that the percentage of ED visits due to COVID began to rise in early July.

Another predictor of COVID surges is COVID sewage wastewater sampling. People infected with COVID will shed virus into household wastewater very soon after becoming infected – often before developing symptoms or getting tested. By testing municipal wastewater for COVID viruses, we can detect surges in COVID early. The graph below shows changes in virus levels from more than 1,200 wastewater testing sites throughout the U.S. The red shade indicates the percentage of samples that show a greater than 100% increase in virus levels and is now the highest it has been since January 2023.

So, what should physicians be doing now?

In the past 3 years, the summer COVID surges have been smaller than the winter surges so if history is any indicator, then the current COVID surge should not overwhelm our hospitals. However, medically vulnerable people are at risk of severe infection or death, including those who are older, obese, or have chronic medical conditions. In addition, with schools opening this month, there is the potential for rapid spread of COVID among children. Here are some practical steps physicians should be taking now:

  • Step up vaccinations. Fewer than 50% of Americans have received an updated bivalent COVID vaccine. Physicians should especially target at-risk individuals for vaccination counseling. This includes pregnant women, the obese, diabetics, the immunocompromised, and those over age 65. The CDC recommends that all people older than 6 months get 1 dose of a bivalent vaccine and those over age 65 or immunocompromised get a second dose of a bivalent vaccine.  New monovalent vaccines directed against the XBB.1.5 variant are expected in October but patients should be told to not wait until then to get vaccinated with a current bivalent vaccine.
  • Have a low threshold for testing. Your patient’s sinusitis or common cold is now more likely to be a COVID infection than it was a couple of months ago. Encourage any patient with possible COVID symptoms to be tested. Even if a person’s COVID infection is too mild to warrant treatment, all infected persons need to be in isolation to prevent transmission to more vulnerable people.
  • Be familiar with isolation guidelines. The CDC recommends that all people who test positive be isolated for 5 days and after at least 24 hours have passed since a fever. After the isolation period, infected persons should wear a face mask for an additional 5 days when in public. People with more severe infection should remain in isolation for 10 days, rather than 5 days.
  • Review current treatment recommendations. The COVID treatment guidelines by the National Institutes of Health are regularly updated. For outpatients, be familiar with the indications for Paxlovid. For inpatients, be familiar with the indications for remdesivir, dexamethasone, heparin, baricitinib, and tocilizumab.
  • Advise patients about COVID trends in your community. Our patients are constantly subjected to conflicting and often misleading information about COVID from the media and from on-line sources. Physicians are often the most trusted source of reliable information for patients. Educate patients when they come into the office and harness group messaging through the electronic medical record system.
  • Normalize masking in high risk settings. High population density indoor settings pose the greatest risk of COVID transmission. This includes churches, airports, aircraft, trains, buses, and stores during busy times of the day. Encourage patients to carry masks with them and then wear them if crowded indoor settings cannot be avoided.

COVID will be with us for the long-term. Inevitably, there will be periodic surges in cases and it appear that one of these surges is underway this month.

August 8, 2023

By James Allen, MD

I am a Professor Emeritus of Internal Medicine at the Ohio State University and former Medical Director of Ohio State University East Hospital