Just when you thought it was safe for a holiday visit with your Auntie Mary and her fragile health, RSV and the flu reared their heads – and now Covid-19 numbers are creeping up again.
Health officials are emphasizing the availability of the protective measures, tests and treatments that they say will be key to preventing a repeat of the Covid-19 surges of the past two winters.
Case numbers are now below those of earlier waves, but about 14% of the US population is in an area that meets the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s criteria for a “high” Covid-19 community level, up from less than 5% last week. New York City, Los Angeles County and Phoenix’s Maricopa County are among those areas.
Covid-19 hospitalizations have been on the rise since early November, and older people are bearing the brunt of these serious illnesses. Hospitalization rates are four times higher for seniors than for any other age group.
In the first week of December, the US had the most Covid-19-related deaths in months. Even with vaccines and treatments widely available, the CDC reported nearly 3,000 deaths for that week.
As it stands, there have been at least 99.2 million Covid-19 cases and more than 1.08 million deaths in the US, according to the CDC.
The White House said Thursday that this Covid-19 season does not have to be like last winter’s, when there was a large spike in cases with the rise of the Omicron coronavirus variant.
“We have the tools, we have the infrastructure, and we have the know-how to manage this moment,” White House Covid-19 response coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha said at a briefing.
The Biden administration has been in daily contact with state and local public health leaders, monitoring hospital levels, he said. And the federal government has medical personnel, supplies and other resources ready if states and communities need them.
The government is also reopening Covidtests.gov for a limited time so more Americans can get access to free tests. Each household in the US can order up to four at home tests that ship as early as next week.
Jha added that although “Covid isn’t the disruptive force it once was,” the country is prepared “no matter what the virus throws at us.”
However, more people still need to get boosted and vaccinated.
Only about 14% of eligible Americans have gotten an updated Covid-19 booster, and 1 in 5 people in the US remain completely unvaccinated, according to the CDC.
Jha said on CNN on Thursday that people who test positive for Covid-19 should “be evaluated for treatment,” especially those 50 and older and anyone with chronic conditions.
Treatments can reduce a person’s risk of being hospitalized or dying from Covid-19, but Paxlovid works best if started within days of when symptoms appear.
“We want to encourage people to use those tools, and given how widespread and how available those tools are, I think if people did that, we could get through” the Covid-19 season, Jha said.
Public health officials are beginning to recommend a return to one of those tools: masking in public places.
In Philadelphia, when schoolchildren come back from the winter break, they will be required to wear masks for 10 days as a “proactive measure” to reduce the spread of Covid-19 and other respiratory illnesses, a district spokesperson said.
The CDC recommends masking for anyone who’s on public transportation. It also suggests wearing one in other public settings in communities with high Covid-19 community levels. People who are at high risk of severe illness are urged to wear masks even in areas with only medium community levels.
Other basic prevention measures still apply: Keep hands clean, and if you’re sick, stay home and do a video call with your elderly relatives.