After what seemed a relatively stable fall season, COVID-19 is on the rise once again all across the United States, just before Americans prepare to celebrate the holidays.
In the past two weeks, COVID cases and hospitalizations have jumped more than 25%. Test positivity rates, ICU admissions and the levels of virus detected in wastewater have also increased at a national level. These are signs, experts say, that we may be entering a new COVID wave.
Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a press briefing on Monday that “this rise in cases and hospitalizations is especially worrisome as we move into the winter months, when more people are assembling indoors with less ventilation, and as we approach the holiday season, where many are gathering with loved ones across multiple generations.”
The timing of this uptick in COVID activity is also concerning given that many health systems across the U.S. are already dealing with an overwhelming number of patients stricken with RSV and influenza infections.
Why are COVID-19 cases on the rise?
Winter is typically a busy time for hospitals, because it is when many respiratory viruses emerge and more people, especially in cold weather areas, spend more time indoors. This gives respiratory viruses, including COVID-19, more chance of spreading.
Before Thanksgiving, many experts predicted that an uptick in cases after the holiday could be expected, especially since many people have stopped taking measures to mitigate the spread of the virus, such as masking.
Dr. Michael Chang, a pediatric infectious disease expert at UTHealth Houston and Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital, told Yahoo News that while gathering for Thanksgiving may have contributed to the recent rise in COVID-19 cases, changes in the virus itself are probably driving this wave of infections.
The coronavirus has continued to mutate, and two new Omicron subvariants — known as BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 — have now become dominant in the U.S. Both of these have replaced BA.5, the Omicron subvariant that had dominated infections in the U.S. since the summer. Together, they now account for 62% of cases nationwide.