A bump in covid-19 transmission isn’t worrying health officials
In recent weeks, there’s been a slight uptick in coronavirus hospitalizations and emergency department visits for the first time since the Biden administration ended the public health emergency for covid-19 in May. Meanwhile, a new subvariant, EG.5, has narrowly surpassed other versions of the virus to become the most common strain in the United States.
But many in the public health world say they aren’t worried at this moment. And there’s a few reasons why.
Health officials and disease watchers say they’re keeping close tabs on the data, while noting that the hospitalization rates — while slowly increasing — are still hovering near an all-time low. The new subvariant is a descendant of omicron and, though more infectious, doesn’t appear more virulent. And new booster shots projected to be available by the third or fourth week of September are still expected to prevent severe disease, even if they don’t directly target EG.5, multiple experts told The Health 202.
- “Overall, my level of concern continues to be low,” Mandy Cohen, the new head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recently told “In the Bubble” podcast host and former Biden administration official Andy Slavitt.
Paul Offit — an attending physician in the infectious-diseases division at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia — said if his hospital is any indicator, the latest increase in covid-19 is hitting those who are over 75 as well as people with comorbidities. He’s not seeing a wave of infections in children. Health experts continue to caution that those high-risk groups are at the greatest risk of severe disease and suggest getting in line for the updated booster shots when they hit the market, despite dismal uptake of the last round.
This all comes as the Biden administration has aimed to project a victory over the pandemic’s emergency phase. The White House disbanded its covid response team and has since launched a new pandemic office, which will respond to other threats beyond just the coronavirus.
For more, McKenzie turned to one of The Post’s great health reporters, Fenit Nirappil, who has been intensely tracking the state of the virus for years.
The Health 202: How worrying is the recent uptick in hospitalizations?
Fenit: We are seeing an uptick in covid hospitalizations and emergency room visits, but it’s important to recognize these are increases in low numbers, and it’s premature to declare a summer surge. The peak of last year’s summer wave was nearly 45,000 hospitalizations in late July; we are at just over 10,000 hospitalizations as of early August of this year.
No one is expecting covid to keep falling until it goes away; it’s not surprising that it’s going up again.
Public health officials haven’t been raising alarms about these last trend lines because all the immunity from repeated vaccination and infection is preventing surges of severe disease. That said, if you have a lower risk tolerance because of concerns about long covid or your age or medical conditions placing you at higher risk, these latest figures are signs that more coronavirus is circulating out there.
The Health 202: Is there a spike in demand for tests, and are they accessible?
Fenit: We don’t have a way of measuring demand for tests right now, but with an overall rise in covid activity, we know more people are developing cold-like symptoms that previously spurred them to get tested.
But the Biden administration ended its program mailing free test kits to households, and health insurers are no longer required to pay for over-the-counter tests. You can still buy them on the private market and check with your local government, employer and health clinics in your area to see if they still have free tests available.
The Health 202: Are there any projections on what we might expect from the virus this fall or winter?
Fenit: It’s always hard to predict the trajectory of an evolving virus. But we have seen surges every winter when more people are gathering indoors and declines in fall 2021 and 2022.
The covid wave last winter was nowhere near as bad as the pandemic winters before it, even with the highly transmissible, immune-evading XBB.1.5 variant emerging.
What we’re hearing from hospitals is they aren’t as worried about covid as they are about the broader respiratory virus season in fall and winter that includes RSV and influenza. That’s why you’ll see a lot of focus this fall on shoring up immunity with campaigns to persuade everyone to get their annual flu shot and an updated covid booster, older adults to get a new RSV vaccine, and infants to get a new RSV antibody treatment that confers vaccine-like protection.
New this a.m.: Nearly 3 in 10 U.S. adults say they or a family member have been addicted to opioids, including prescription painkillers such as OxyContin or illegal drugs such as heroin, according to a poll from KFF.
The poll also underscores that opioids are just one component of a larger substance use crisis facing the country. Two-thirds of U.S. adults said they or a family member have been addicted to drugs or alcohol; experienced homelessness because of an addiction; or had an overdose that led to an emergency room visit, hospitalization or death.
Fewer than half of those who reported a substance use disorder of their own or among a family member said the person suffering from an addiction received treatment, with White adults more likely to say they or their loved one received care compared with Black and Hispanic adults.
Addiction advocates push back against opioid settlement funds for police
Public health groups are challenging how some state and local governments are spending opioid settlement funds, arguing that the money should be invested into substance use treatment and prevention programs instead of going toward policing, Jan Hoffman reports for the New York Times.
In a road map released yesterday, more than 130 addiction specialists, legal aid groups and street outreach organizations outlined a list of suggested priorities for the funds, including expanding access to recovery housing, overdose reversal drugs and medication-assisted treatment. They explicitly stated that none of the money “should be spent on law enforcement personnel, overtime or equipment.”
Key context: A handful of drugmakers, pharmacies and distributors will pay out more than $50 billion over the next two decades to settle charges that their business practices fueled a national opioid epidemic. While most of that cash must be directed toward mitigating harm caused by opioids or preventing future substance use, some experts have been raising alarms that officials could take advantage of a lack of transparency and oversight to funnel the money toward other priorities, The Health 202 previously reported.
- The federal health department’s Office of Civil Rights has opened an investigation into Vanderbilt University Medical Center after a class-action lawsuit filed last month accused the health system of releasing the medical records of patients receiving gender-affirming care to Tennessee law enforcement, Dave Muoio reports for Fierce Healthcare.
- A coalition of consumer and patient advocacy groups is urging a federal judge in Ohio to reject the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s request for a preliminary injunction stopping Medicare from negotiating drug prices while a lawsuit against its new authority proceeds. The groups argue that such a move would create a substantial risk that Congress’s deadline for implementing the program by 2026 won’t be met.
- People in New Zealand will no longer be required to wear a face mask in health-care facilities or isolate for seven days if they contract the coronavirus after the government dropped all of the country’s remaining pandemic rules yesterday, the New Zealand Herald’s Derek Cheng reports.
The Smithsonian’s ‘bone doctor’ scavenged thousands of body parts (By Nicole Dungca, Claire Healy and Andrew Ba Tran l The Washington Post)
The Hidden Fee Costing Doctors Millions Every Year (By Cezary Podkul | ProPublica )
She Just Had a Baby. Soon, She’ll Start 7th Grade. (By Charlotte Alter | Time Magazine)
At a DC hospital:
“How are you going to get home today, sir?”
“I live at The Watergate. It’s practically across the street! I’m walking!”
“Someone has to come get you, sir.”
“I’m a newspaper columnist. Don’t make this difficult. I could write about it.”
— Overheard District (@OverheardWDC) August 13, 2023
Thanks for reading! See y’all tomorrow.