For Now, US Treads Water With Transformed Coronavirus

The fast-changing coronavirus has kicked off summer in the U.S. with lots of infections but relatively few deaths compared to its prior incarnations.

COVID-19 is still killing hundreds of Americans each day, but is not nearly as dangerous as it was last fall and winter.

“It’s going to be a good summer and we deserve this break,” said Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle.

With more Americans shielded from severe illness through vaccination and infection, COVID-19 has transformed — for now at least — into an unpleasant, inconvenient nuisance for many.

“It feels cautiously good right now,” said Dr. Dan Kaul, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor. “For the first time that I can remember, pretty much since it started, we don’t have any (COVID-19) patients in the ICU.”

As the nation marks July Fourth, the average number of daily deaths from COVID-19 in the United States is hovering around 360. Last year, during a similar summer lull, it was around 228 in early July. That remains the lowest threshold in U.S. daily deaths since March 2020, when the virus first began its U.S. spread.

But there were far fewer reported cases at this time last year — fewer than 20,000 a day. Now, it’s about 109,000 — and likely an undercount as home tests aren’t routinely reported.

Today, in the third year of the pandemic, it’s easy to feel confused by the mixed picture: Repeat infections are increasingly likely, and a sizeable share of those infected will face the lingering symptoms of long COVID-19.

Yet, the stark danger of death has diminished for many people.

“And that’s because we’re now at a point that everyone’s immune system has seen either the virus or the vaccine two or three times by now,” said Dr. David Dowdy, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Over time, the body learns not to overreact when it sees this virus.”

“What we’re seeing is that people are getting less and less ill on average,” Dowdy said.

As many as 8 out of 10 people in the U.S. have been infected at least once, according to one influential model.

The death rate for COVID-19 has been a moving target, but recently has fallen to within the range of an average flu season, according to data analyzed by Arizona State University health industry researcher Mara Aspinall.

At first, some people said coronavirus was no more deadly than the flu, “and for a long period of time, that wasn’t true,” Aspinall said. Back then, people had no immunity. Treatments were experimental. Vaccines didn’t exist.

Now, Aspinall said, the built-up immunity has driven down the death rate to solidly in the range of a typical flu season. Over the past decade, the death rate for flu was about 5% to 13% of those hospitalized.

Big differences separate flu from COVID-19: The behavior of the coronavirus continues to surprise health experts and it’s still unclear whether it will settle into a flu-like seasonal pattern.

Last summer — when vaccinations first became widely available in the U.S. — was followed by the delta surge and then the arrival of omicron, which killed 2,600 Americans a day at its peak last February.

Experts agree a new variant might arise capable of escaping the population’s built-up immunity. And the fast-spreading omicron subtypes BA.4 and BA.5 might also contribute to a change in the death numbers.

“We thought we understood it until these new subvariants emerged,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, an infectious disease specialist at the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas.

It would be wise, he said, to assume that a new variant will come along and hit the nation later this summer.

“And then another late fall-winter wave,” Hotez said.

In the next weeks, deaths could edge up in many states, but the U.S. as a whole is likely to see deaths decline slightly, said Nicholas Reich, who aggregates coronavirus projections for the COVID-19 Forecast Hub in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We’ve seen COVID hospitalizations increase to around 5,000 new admissions each day from just over 1,000 in early April. But deaths due to COVID have only increased slightly over the same time period,” said Reich, a professor of biostatistics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Unvaccinated people have a six times higher risk of dying from COVID-19 compared with people with at least a primary series of shots, the CDC estimated based on available data from April.

This summer, consider your own vulnerability and that of those around you, especially in large gatherings since the virus is spreading so rapidly, Dowdy said.

“There are still people who are very much at risk,” he said.

Source: Voice of America

With Hospitalizations Up, France Weighs Return to Masks

tourism is booming again in France — and so is COVID-19. French officials have invited or recommended people to go back to using face masks but stopped short of renewing restrictions that would scare visitors away or revive antigovernment protests.

From Paris commuters to tourists on the French Riviera, many people seem to welcome the government’s light touch, while some worry that required prevention measures may be needed.

Virus-related hospitalizations rose quickly in France over the past two weeks, with nearly 1,000 patients with COVID-19 hospitalized per day, according to government data. Infections are also rising across Europe and the United States, but France has an exceptionally high proportion of people in the hospital, according to Our World in Data estimates.

French government spokesperson Olivia Gregoire has said there are no plans to reintroduce national regulations that limit or set conditions for gathering indoors and other activities.

“The French people are sick of restrictions,” she said Wednesday on channel BFMTV. “We are confident that people will behave responsibly.”

France’s parliamentary elections last month resulted in President Emmanuel Macron losing his majority in the national legislature, while parties on the far right and the far left that had protested his government’s earlier vaccine and mask rules gained seats.

After the prime minister this week recommended that people resume wearing masks on public transportation, commuter Raphaelle Vertaldi said, “We need to deal with the virus, but we can’t stop living because of it.”

Vertaldi, who was boarding a train in Boussy-Saint-Antoine south of Paris, said she opposed mandatory mask use but would cover her mouth and nose again, if the government requires it.

Hassani Mohammed, a postal worker in Paris, didn’t wait for the government to decide. He masks up before his daily commute. With his wife recovering from surgery and two children at home, he does not want to risk contracting the coronavirus a third time.

“I realized that the pandemic does not belong to the past,” Mohammed said.

Masks have been contentious in France. Early in the pandemic, the French government suggested masks weren’t helpful. It ultimately introduced some of Europe’s toughest restrictions, including an indoors and outside mask mandate that lasted more than a year, along with strict lockdowns.

A Paris court ruled Tuesday that the French government failed to sufficiently stock up on surgical masks at the start of the pandemic and to prevent the virus from spreading. The administrative court in Paris also ruled that the government was wrong to suggest early on that masks did not protect people from becoming infected.

The government lifted most virus rules by April, and foreign tourists have returned by land, sea and air to French Mediterranean beaches, restaurants and bars.

In the meantime, French hospitals are struggling with long-running staff and funding shortages. Local officials are contemplating new measures, including an indoor mask mandate in some cities, but nothing that would curb economic activity.

French tourism professionals expect a booming summer season despite the virus, with numbers that may even surpass pre-pandemic levels as Americans benefit from the weaker euro and others rediscover foreign travel after more than two years of a more circumscribed existence.

On the French Riviera, a slow economic recovery began last summer. But with attendance at gatherings still capped, social distancing rules and travel restrictions in place a year ago, most visitors to the area were French.

A tour guide and electric bicycle taxi driver in Nice described her joy at seeing foreign visitors again. During France’s repeated lockdowns, she transported essential workers, and took people to hospitals, to care for elderly relatives or for PCR tests.

Now, passengers on her bike from the U.S., Australia, Germany, Italy or beyond reach for the hand disinfectant taped to the barrier between the passenger and driver’s seats. She said she still diligently disinfects the bike before each ride, “like it’s 2020.”

A retired couple from the U.K. visited France this week on their first trip abroad since pandemic travel restrictions were lifted. They started with a river cruise down the Rhône – face masks were mandatory on the ship — and ended with a few days on the Mediterranean.

“It’s been delightful from start to finish,” said Ros Runcie, who was in Nice with her husband, Gordon. “Everyone is so pleased to see you, everyone is really polite and nice to visitors.”

Sue Baker, who was traveling with her husband, Phil, and the Runcies, observed, “It feels very much like pre-2020.”

Asked about the possible return of French mask rules, Phil Baker said, “Masks are a bit uncomfortable, especially in the heat.”

But his wife added, “If it means we can still go on a holiday, we’ll put them back on without hesitation.”

Source: Voice of America