'Another holiday season of COVID': Experts ‘really concerned’ about rise in case numbers

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Despite early signs that suggested the U.S. may have avoided another winter surge, COVID-19 cases are rising again.

The country reported 665,420 cases in the week ending Monday, more than a 30% increase from the pace of cases reported about a month ago, according to a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins data.

As cases rise in 39 states, U.S. Health and Human Services data show hospitals in 32 states admitted more patients in the latest week than the week before.

“Quite frankly, I’m really concerned,” said Danielle Ompad, associate professor of epidemiology at New York University’s School of Global Public Health. “I would say we are better off than we were last year, but cases are starting to tick up and that is something that we really need to keep an eye on."

After nearly two years of combating COVID-19, health experts thought the U.S. would have been in a better position to control the pandemic. Instead, many people remain unvaccinated and ignore mitigation measures, slowing the pace of progress and burning out health care professionals.

“We could really get a good handle on this, but that’s not what’s happening," Ompad said. "People are fighting against the straightforward advice.”

As vaccines were first rolled out to health care workers, experts said at least 85% of the U.S. population needed to be immunized to achieve herd immunity. But nearly a year later, only about 60% of eligible Americans are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We always knew that there’s a small number of people who are vigorously opposed to vaccines, only about 1%-2% of Americans refuse all vaccines outright,” said Dr. Chris Beyrer, at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “We didn’t expect the COVID response would be so impacted by the divisive politics and deliberate spreading of misinformation.

“That’s why we are having another holiday season of COVID.”

Even though vaccination rates are lower than experts anticipated, they still marvel at how fast scientists developed a vaccine and health care workers immunized half the country.

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“If we look back, getting 60% in a year is something we’ve never done ever in the history of humankind,” Dr. Colleen Kraft, associate chief medical officer at Emory University Hospital. “I stopped using a crystal ball about a year ago … but what’s going to be our scorecard is this winter.”

How the virus behaves in the next few months now that COVID-19 vaccines, rapid antigen tests and masks are widely available could predict its future patterns. Beyrer points to signs that it could become endemic, mimicking a traditional respiratory virus that appears in the winter and disappears by spring.

“We are already seeing the emergence of something like a seasonal pattern with COVID,” he said. “It is predictable as the weather gets cooler and people go inside, rates would increase and we’re seeing that.”

Experts also say it will be impossible for the country to progress while COVID-19 continues to transmit globally. Cases are rising in Europe and about 53% of the world’s population has been fully vaccinated, according to data from the Global Change Data Lab, a U.K. nonprofit. Only about 5% of people in low-income countries received at least one dose of the vaccine.

Experts fear the more COVID-19 transmits unabatedly in these countries, the more opportunities the virus has to mutate and create a dangerous variant resistant to current vaccines.

“It would be a great tragedy if the current generation of vaccines was undermined by variants because we didn’t do a better job with global distribution,” Beyrer said. “That’s an existential threat.”

In order to stop coronavirus from spreading in wealthy countries, global organizations must refocus their attention on distributing and administering vaccines to all countries.

During a virtual coronavirus summit in September, President Joe Biden pledged to send an additional 500 million COVID-19 vaccines around the world, increasing the total doses donated to other nations to more than 1.1 billion. He also announced a $370 million commitment to support administering vaccinations in other countries and $1.4 billion to increase the availability of oxygen, expand testing and strengthen health systems.

“Right now the vaccines are holding and we have to immunize planet Earth as soon as we can,” Beyrer said. “COVID-19 anywhere runs the risk of COVID-19 everywhere.”

Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.

Health and patient safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID holiday surge? Experts 'really concerned' about rise in cases