The holidays have passed and once again, Americans are facing a wave of respiratory illnesses, including Covid. But so far, this winter’s Covid surge appears less deadly than last year’s, and far less than in 2022, when the emergence of the Omicron paralyzed the nation.

“We’re not seeing the signs that would make me think we’re heading toward another serious wave,” said Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “So far we are in relatively good shape.”

Yet there are few masks in sight, and only a fraction of the most vulnerable people have received the latest Covid shots, she noted.

“It’s not too late,” Dr. Rivers added. “We haven’t even hit the peak yet for Covid, and once you hit the peak, you still have to come down the other side. » This gives the vaccine enough time to provide some protection.

Federal officials are relying on limited data to measure this year’s spread. After the public health emergency ended in May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stopped tracking the number of Covid infections. The agency now has only partial access to states’ information on vaccination rates.

But the trends in Waste data, positive tests, emergency service visits, hospitalization prices and death indicate an increase in infections in all regions of the country, according to the CDC. These trends have guest a lot hospitals has restore mask Strategiesafter initially resisting a return to these measures this fall.

As in previous years, the numbers have increased steadily throughout the winter and are expected to increase further after holiday travel and gatherings.

Many infections are caused by a new variant, JN.1, which has spread rapidly across the world in recent weeks. “I think there’s no question that this is contributing quite substantially to this winter surge,” said Katelyn Jetelina, a public health expert and author of a widely read newsletter: “Your local epidemiologist.”

“Unfortunately, this is happening at the exact same time that we’re opening up our social media because of the holidays,” she said, “so there’s kind of a perfect storm going on right now.”

Some scientists have pointed to rising virus levels in wastewater samples as an indicator that infections are at least as high this year as they were this time last year. But Dr. Rivers urged caution in interpreting wastewater data as an indicator of infections and said hospitalizations were a more reliable measure.

In the week ending Dec. 23, hospitalizations increased nearly 17% from the previous week. There were around 29,000 new hospital admissions, compared to 39,000 in the same week last year and 61,000 in 2021.

And weekly hospitalizations are increasing more slowly than in previous years, Dr. Rivers said.

Covid still kills at least 1,200 people per week. But this number represents about a third of the toll at the same time last year and an eighth of that of 2021.

“We’re facing a pretty significant infection right now, but what’s really interesting is how well hospitalizations have and continue to decouple from infections,” Dr. Jetelina said.

She said she worries most about hospitals buckling under the weight of multiple outbreaks at once. Even in the years before the pandemic, outbreaks of influenza and respiratory syncytial virus could strain hospitals; Rising Covid rates now overlap both diseases, adding to the burden.

The CDC estimates that so far this season there have been at least 7.1 million illnesses, 73,000 hospitalizations and 4,500 deaths from the flu.

While Covid tends to be mild in children and young adults, the flu and RSV are riskier for young children and older adults. These three diseases are particularly dangerous for infants.

Emergency room visits for Covid are highest among infants and the elderly. Although RSV has stabilized in some areas of the country, hospitalization rates remain high among young children and the elderly.

The JN.1 variant represents almost half of all Covid cases in the United States, almost six times the prevalence just a month ago. The variant has a mutation that gives it a greater ability to evade immunity than its parent, BA.2.86, whose spread was limited.

JN.1 might actually be less transmissible than previous variants. But its immune evasive nature, associated with the disappearance of preventive measures such as masks, could explain its exponential growth. globalsaid Dr. Abraar Karan, an infectious disease physician and postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University.

Still, JN.1 does not appear to cause more severe illness than previous variants, and the current virus vaccinestests and treatments work well against all current variants.

Experts have urged all Americans – including those not at high risk of serious illness – to opt for Covid and flu vaccines, use masks and air purifiers to prevent infections, get tested and treated and to stay home if they get sick.

Even those who don’t become seriously ill are at risk of long-term complications with each new viral infection, the researchers noted.

“To be honest, I’m not at high risk: I’m young and vaccinated,” Dr. Rivers said. “But I continue to take precautions in my own life because I don’t want to deal with that disruption and the risk of developing illness longer term.”

But few Americans follow this advice. As of December 23, only 19 percent of adults had received the latest Covid vaccine, and around 44 percent had opted for the annual flu vaccine. Just over 17 percent of adults aged 60 and older have received the RSV vaccine

Even among people 75 and older, who are most at risk from Covid, only about one on three received the last shot, according to the CDC

Many people don’t realize that vaccines that protect against the newer variants are available, or that they should be vaccinated even if they are not high risk, said Gigi Gronvall, a biosecurity expert at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

Although the Covid vaccine does not prevent infection, it can reduce the duration and severity of illness and minimize the risk of long-term symptoms including brain fog, fatigue, movement problems and dizziness – collectively known as long Covid.

“I’m sure there are also a lot of people who are actively hostile to the idea, but most people I meet just don’t know it,” Dr. Gronvall said.

Low availability of vaccines, particularly for children and the elderly, has also limited vaccination rates.

Dr Gronvall struggled to find a Covid vaccine for his teenage son. Dr. Jetelina has yet to find anything for her young children. She said her grandparents, both in their 90s, also had an “incredibly difficult time.”

One of them is in a nursing home and still hasn’t been vaccinated because she was sick the day the vaccines were offered.

A lot residents of a retirement home and staff members are not being vaccinated, because staff do not understand the benefits, said Dr. Karan, who has worked in nursing facilities in Los Angeles County.

Financial incentives can improve vaccination coverage, but lack of awareness of their benefits “is a major problem,” he said.

Experts have also urged people who develop symptoms to get tested and seek antiviral medications – Tamiflu for flu, Paxlovid for Covid – especially if they are at high risk of complications.

Paxlovid is still available free to most people, but many patients and even doctors avoid it because they wrongly believe it causes a rebound in Covid symptoms, experts said. Recent studies doesn’t find a relationship between antiviral medications and symptom rebound.

“For many viruses, including influenza, we know that early use of antivirals will be beneficial,” Dr. Karan said. “You quickly stop viral replication, you have less immune dysregulation afterwards.”

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