The COVID-19 pandemic is at another turning point. Once again, Americans are eager to get back to the pace of normal life, while case counts are ticking up. Once again, virus experts are advising caution while acknowledging the reality of COVID fatigue. Although the BA.2 subvariant is now the most dominant in the US and cases have begun to rise again, BA.2 does not seem to cause more severe illness and is not pushing up hospitalizations, yet. That’s the operative word: On the latest episode of his podcast, epidemiologist Dr. Michael Osterholm noted that BA.2 is causing a serious healthcare strain in another part of the world which may or may not spread to the US in the coming weeks. Read on to find out more—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don’t miss these Sure Signs You’ve Already Had COVID.
Osterholm noted that the COVID-19 cases have started to decline worldwide. Last Wednesday was the first time that global new cases had dipped below 1 million a day since last December. It’s well below the 3.4 million daily cases that were being reported at the peak of the Omicron surge in January. At the same time, “average daily deaths globally have fallen to their lowest level since the start of the pandemic,” said Osterholm. “Ultimately, there’s a lot of things we could and should be doing to see even more progress in this area. But after more than two years with levels above this, often far above this, it’s progress.”
However, there are other signs about the virus right now that worry Osterholm and other health experts.
Hospital Capacity Shortages Still a Possibility
“According to an analysis done by the Financial Times, the National Health Service hospitals in England have had the lowest number of vacant beds available since the start of the pandemic,” said Osterholm. Why? Not only has recent resurgence of COVID-filled beds, “it’s important to remember that certain elective or non-urgent procedures were postponed and continue to be postponed in order to free up more space for COVID patients,” he said. “Because those procedures were postponed, a backlog of patients with non-COVID issues have been building up. And in fact, as of last Thursday, a record high, 6.2 million Brits were waiting for non-urgent treatment. Thus, between clearing the backlog and dealing with the rise in COVID patients who have to be placed in areas where they’re kept separate from other patients, even if they’re an incidental admission with COVID, the UK health care system is under a lot of pressure.”
Will UK Hospital Problems Hit the US?
Additionally, in the UK, as in the US healthcare staff who’ve contracted COVID have to stay away from work, creating shortages. “In a Financial Times article published this past Sunday, Dr Katherine Henderson, who serves as the president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, liked the situation in the UK emergency departments to flying a plane with half the crew and three passengers to every seat,” said Osterholm. “Later in the article, she shared the following, ‘Every single metric in emergency care is worse than ever before, and it’s going to take a huge change to get things better.'”
“A big question, is this the future of our US experience or is it limited to the UK and maybe only in a few places in the United States? We don’t know,” said Osterholm. “And anyone who projects what the cases will be like in this country in the next 30 to 60 days, be careful. They have a bridge to sell you too.”
“You Really Are Not Protecting Yourself At All”
Osterholm was not particularly concerned about the demise of mask mandates, considering that many people are using low-quality masks or wearing them incorrectly (like below their nose). “Let’s stop having a debate about whether we have a mask mandate or not,” he said. “It’s not necessarily going to make much difference. If everyone today would be made to wear an N95 effectively, then you’d have me at hello. I would strongly urge that we support those kinds of mandates. But for now, all we’ re really doing is window dressing with this entire menagerie of face cloth coverings, surgical masks, etcetera.”
Osterholm said he wasn’t anti-masking: “Just the opposite. But you’ve got to use high-quality masks. Otherwise you really are not protecting yourself at all.” He said that immunocompromised people, in addition to getting four doses of vaccine, should be careful to wear an N95 respirator when traveling.
How to Stay Safe Out There
Follow the fundamentals and help end this pandemic, no matter where you live—get vaccinated ASAP; if you live in an area with low vaccination rates, wear at N95 face maskdon’t travel, social distance, avoid large crowds, don’t go indoors with people you’re not sheltering with (especially in bars), practice good hand hygiene, and to protect your life and the lives of others, don’ t visit any of these 35 Places You’re Most Likely to Catch COVID.