It May Be Time to Pay Attention to COVID Again

New Covid information as we come to the end of summer

Aug. 10, 2023 – More than 3 years into the COVID-19 era, most Americans have settled back into their pre-pandemic lifestyles. But a new dominant variant and rising hospitalization numbers may give way to another summer surge. 

Since April, a new COVID variant has cropped up. According to recent CDC data, EG.5 – from the Omicron family – now makes up 17% of all cases in the U.S., up from 7.5% in the first week of July. 

A summary from the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota says that EG.5, nicknamed “Eris” by health trackers, is nearly the same as its parent strain, XBB.1.9.2, but has one extra spike mutation. 

Along with the news of EG.5’s growing prevalence, COVID-related hospitalization rates have increased by 12.5% in the last week – the most significant uptick since December. Still, no connection has been made between the new variant and rising hospital admissions. And so far, experts have found no difference in the severity of illness or symptoms between Eris and the strains that came before it. 

Cause for Concern?

The COVID virus has a great tendency to mutate, says William Schaffner, MD, a professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. 

“Fortunately, these are relatively minor mutations.” Even so, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, continues to be highly contagious. “There isn’t any doubt that it’s spreading – but it’s not more serious.”

While the numbers are still low compared to last year’s summer surge, experts still urge people to stay aware of changes in the virus.

What the Official Numbers Say?

The CDC no longer updates its COVID Data Tracker Weekly Review. They stopped in May 2023 when the federal public health emergency ended.

But the agency continues to track COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, emergency department visits, and deaths in different ways. The key takeaways as of this week include 9,056 new hospitalizations reported for the week ending July 29, 2023. That is relatively low, compared to July 30, 2022, when the weekly new hospitalization numbers topped 44,000. 

What About New COVID Vaccines?

As long as you continue to make informed decisions and get the new Omicron vaccine or booster once it’s available, experts predict lower hospitalization rates this winter. 

In the meantime, “It is important to emphasize that COVID-19 is going to be with us for the foreseeable future,” he said. Since the symptoms linked to these newer Omicron subvariants are generally milder than with earlier variants, “if one has even mild cold symptoms, it is a good idea to test yourself for COVID-19 and start treatment early if one is elderly or otherwise at high risk for severe disease.”

Stay Alert and Stay Realistic

Cautious optimism and a call to remain vigilant seem like the consensus at the moment. While the numbers remain low so far and the uptick in new cases and hospitalizations are relatively small, compared to past scenarios, “It makes sense to boost our anti-Omicron antibody levels with immunizations before fall and winter,” Liu said. 

“It’s just advisable for everyone – especially those who are at higher risk for hospitalization or death – to be aware,” Camins said, “so they can form their own decisions to participate in activities that may put them at risk for contracting COVID-19.”

We have to remind ourselves that whether they’re for the flu, COVID, or even RSV, these respiratory virus vaccines work best at keeping us out of the hospital. They’re not as good at preventing milder infections. 

CDC: “Monitoring Variant Proportions anchor link,” “United States COVID-19 Hospitalizations, Deaths, Emergency Department (ED) Visits, and Test Positivity by Geographic Area.”

Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy: “WHO adds Omicron EG.5 to variant monitoring as global COVID markers decline further.”

William Schaffner, MD, professor of infectious diseases, Vanderbilt University, Nashville. 

Bernard Camins, MD, infectious disease specialist, Mount Sinai Hospital, New York City.

Dean Winslow, MD, professor of medicine, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA.

Anne Liu, MD, clinical associate professor, Department of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA.