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April 7, 2022

Will Americans care about the next Covid-19 wave?

Daily Briefing

    As omicron subvariant BA.2 becomes more prevalent in the United States, a new Covid-19 wave may soon arrive—but since many Americans have adopted a more nonchalant attitude toward the pandemic, the next surge may be a "so what?" wave.

    Is a new Covid-19 wave on its way?

    Countries in Europe last month saw a surge in new Covid-19 cases, largely driven by the highly transmissible omicron subvariant BA.2. So far, research suggests that BA.2 is around 30% more contagious than the original BA.1 omicron, although BA.2 doesn't cause more severe disease than BA.1.

    According to CDC estimates, the BA.2 subvariant now makes up 72% of all coronavirus infections in the United States—higher than the proportion at which the subvariant began causing Covid-19 cases to rise in other countries.

    "Once you get into the 50 to 60 percent BA.2 range is when you see cases going up," said Sam Scarpino, managing director of pathogen surveillance at the Rockefeller Foundation.

    However, Covid-19 cases nationwide have remained mostly steady, dropping around 1% over the last two weeks, the New York Times reports.

    "It has not taken off," said Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota.

    According to some experts, high vaccination rates, as well as natural immunity, may be protecting Americans from an increase in cases. Although the United States has a lower overall vaccination rate than Western Europe, many U.S. communities have higher levels of natural immunity.

    "Most of Europe has been pretty Covid averse, whereas parts of the United States have been quite Covid curious," said William Hanage, an epidemiologist from Harvard University.

    Other experts say that a lack of testing may be obscuring a rise in Covid-19 cases in the United States. According to the Times, many Americans have shifted to at-home testing in recent months, and these tests are typically not reported to government agencies tracking case data.

    Former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb said he thought some parts of the United States were "dramatically" underreporting cases. However, hospitalization trends, which typically lag case trends by a week, continue to fall, recently reaching their lowest level since the start of the pandemic.

    Why BA.2 may become the 'so what' wave

    Even with a potential new Covid-19 wave on the horizon, many Americans have begun adopting a more nonchalant attitude toward the pandemic—meaning "[t]he next wave may be less a BA.2 wave, and more a so what? wave," according to The Atlantic.

    In a recent AP-NORC poll, only 25% of Americans said they were extremely or very worried about themselves or a family member being infected by the coronavirus. In comparison, 43% said they were not at all or not too worried about Covid-19.

    Many people are also now taking fewer pandemic precautions than before. In the poll, less than 50% of respondents said they always or often avoid nonessential travel, stay away from large groups, and wear a face mask outside of their homes, and just another third said they avoid other people as much as possible.

    In addition, experts have voiced concerns that the United States will not be prepared for a potential new wave, particularly as public health efforts and data reporting are reduced nationwide.

    Across the country, many state and local health departments have closed free testing and mass vaccination sites amid declining Covid-19 activity and low demand for the services. According to public health officials, scaling back these initiatives may make it more difficult to quickly increase access to vaccines and testing again if another surge occurs.

    A growing number of states, including Arizona, Hawaii, Nevada, and Oklahoma, have also scaled back their daily Covid-19 reports on new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. Although some experts have said hospitalizations and vaccination rates are more valuable than case counts at this point in the pandemic, others argue that limiting Covid-19 data reporting will make it difficult to track and respond to a new nationwide surge.

    "I keep thinking back to this idea of 'If we don't measure it, it won't happen,'" said Shweta Bansal, an infectious disease modeler at Georgetown University. In reality, "it's very well happening, and we just don't see it yet." (Leonhardt, New York Times, 4/6; Bean/Carbajal, Becker's Hospital Review, 4/5; Wu, The Atlantic, 4/5)

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