In May, the COVID-19 emergency was officially declared over — but the coronavirus remains a significant threat, according to an increasingly concerned medical community.
The latest data from the New York state Department of Health, released Aug. 2, shows that COVID cases spiked by 55% since the prior week, with an average of 824 reported cases per day across the state.
And hospital admissions for the disease increased by 22% compared to the previous week, which translates to more than 100 admissions a day.
Meanwhile, a new variant — dubbed EG.5, or eris — has arisen as the dominant strain, causing about 17% of COVID cases nationwide, according to a new alert from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As new variants continue to appear, health experts are concerned that we’re not prepared — especially for a worst-case scenario.
“The most frightening thing is if the virus was more deadly,” Anna Bershteyn, assistant professor in the Department of Population Health at NYU’s medical school, told The Post.
“That’s really scary,” Bershteyn added, “if a virus had the transmissibility of COVID and was as deadly as the MERS coronavirus,” referring to Middle East respiratory syndrome, a disease with a fatality rate of over 30%.
Despite the availability of vaccines and boosters, COVID-19 cases are rising nationwide this summer.Christopher Sadowski
As cases rise, some blame ‘Barbie’
The rise in COVID-19 cases isn’t limited to New York: The CDC recorded 8,000 US hospital admissions for COVID-19 in the week ending July 22, a 12% increase from the week before.
CDC data also shows that each year since the pandemic began in 2020, an annual winter spike in cases — such as when the omicron variant caused a leap in infections in the winter of 2021-22 — is followed by a smaller increase in the middle of the summer.
“The most frightening thing to me is, we don’t know where that [omicron] variant came from,” Bershteyn said, adding that an even deadlier variant could arise without warning.
“That event could happen anytime,” she added. “That thought sends chills down my spine.”
This summer’s increase could be fueled in part by the popularity of two movies — “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” — which have packed theaters nationwide.
“A movie theater or a big party where there isn’t much air circulation” could develop into a superspreader event, Bershteyn said, adding that “probably 80% of all COVID cases” arise from such events.
Lack of testing frustrates health experts
Even as cases increase and people gather for summer travel, popular movies and other events, tests for COVID-19 aren’t as readily available as they once were.
Despite a rise in COVID-19 cases, testing and test kits are in short supply.REUTERS
In June, the Biden administration stopped mailing out free test kits, and the ones people stockpiled over the past year or two are either expired or will be soon.
Without testing, “it will be hard for people to know if what they have is COVID,” Bershteyn said.
Because of the availability of the antiviral Paxlovid, “we actually have no supply problems” when it comes to treating cases of COVID-19, Bershteyn added. “Testing is really the key way to take advantage of these medications.”
And even though the number of COVID-19 deaths has dropped, “1 out of every 100 deaths is still something,” Bershteyn noted, referring to the CDC’s estimate that 1% of US deaths are due to the disease.
Moreover, many health insurance plans stopped paying for over-the-counter test kits once the requirement to do so ended when the emergency declaration was lifted.
The lack of available test kits could add to a rise in COVID hospitalizations and deaths, say health experts.
“We are going to continue to see people hospitalized for COVID … that could have been prevented had testing been freely and widely available,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious diseases specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, told the Washington Post.
Testing sites, like this one in New York City, are harder to find today than during the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic.REUTERS
New booster shots available this autumn
Fortunately, this summer’s rise in cases isn’t caused by a virulent strain of the coronavirus.
“The good news is that we’re not seeing anything in the virus that suggests it’s getting more transmissible or more lethal,” Dr. Ashwin Vasan, the New York City health commissioner, told PIX11 News.
“What this really is, is just waning immunity,” Vasan added, referring to the fact that vaccines and boosters received months or years ago have lost their effectiveness with time.
Vasan and other public health experts are encouraging people to get the updated booster shot when it becomes available.
“We’re gonna have a new booster coming online in September or early October, per the CDC, and that’s gonna be updated to match the current variants, and it’ll give us protection going into the winter and fall season,” Vasan said.
“This is part of living with COVID,” Vasan added, “and these fluctuations are to be expected.”
“As we once again see an increase in cases of COVID-19 in the state, I urge all New Yorkers to remember COVID is a treatable disease,” New York state Health Commissioner Dr. James McDonald said in a news release.
“COVID tests are easy to use as well as highly accurate. If you test positive, speak with a health care provider about treatment, which can prevent hospitalization and death,” McDonald said.