Frequently Asked Questions about COVID-19 — May 25, 2022

“Shared expectations lead to predictability.”

546.   New York City is experiencing a “Fifth Wave” of Covid-19.

         QEverything looks like we are returning to normal.  Is this true??

         A:  No.  New York City is experiencing a steady, slow increase in the number of cases of Covid-19, much like Connecticut has been having.  Jonathan Wolfe, a reporter with the New York Times ran a story last week that reflected on the current round of increasing cases, including the even more transmissible subvariant BA.2.12.1 making up three-quarters of new cases in New York, New Jersey, and Puerto Rico as of mid-May, according to the CDC.  He notes that the rise this time has been building much more gradually compared with the first Omicron wave a few months back. But there are a lot of viruses circulating right now and the numbers keep climbing. Currently, we’re seeing more than 4,000 confirmed cases a day, but those official numbers dramatically undercount how many people are sick because they don’t incorporate at-home tests.

New Covid hospitalizations are at about 150 a day. For comparison, in early January, there were a couple of days when it was over a thousand.  CDC research suggests that nearly a third of the city was probably infected during the Omicron wave in January and December. So presumably a lot of New Yorkers have more protection now against severe forms of the disease. Also, more people have received their booster shots. And the antiviral pill Paxlovid is making a difference, too.

547.  Community wastewater surveillance show increasing numbers of infections.

         Q:  Are they still testing wastewater to find how much Covid is spreading in communities?

         A:  Many people who are now contracting Covid-19 are having mild symptoms, are found positive from take-home tests, and recovering without contacting a hospital or taking a PCR laboratory test.  Thus, they are not counted in any statistics.  But health officials in several parts of the United States are seeing worrisome signals in wastewater surveillance data that the coronavirus may be spreading more widely than reported tallies would indicate, and that a steeper wave may be coming.  Wastewater surveillance provides only a broad-brush picture of virus prevalence in a particular community, but the readings it gives are close to real-time. So, health officials are looking to wastewater data for early warning of trends.

In Maine, state health officials have been seeing a surge “for a while,” Mike Abbott, a primary analyst on wastewater screening for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Thursday. He noted that the increase in cases began in mid-April, with the incline getting steeper in May.  A New York Times database shows that Maine recorded a sharp upward trend in cases in the last week of April and into May that reached levels the state saw during the Delta surge at the end of August.

548.  Australia’s death rate is 10% of what we have in the U.S.

         Q:  Do other countries have as high a Covid death rate as we do? 

         A:  On May 16, just as 1,000,000 deaths have been recorded in the U.S., the New York Times published a story that stated “if the United States had the same Covid death rate as Australia, about 900,000 lives would have been saved.”  For many Americans, imagining what might have been may be unthinkable, but especially now, the nations that did a better job of keeping people alive show what Americans could have done differently and what might still need to change.

The two countries are alike in many ways.  Both are English-speaking democracies with similar demographic profiles. In Australia and in the United States, the median age is 38.  Roughly 86% of Australians live in urban areas, compared with 83% of Americans.  Yet Australia’s Covid death rate sits at one-tenth of America’s, putting that nation of 25 million people near the top of global rankings in the protection of life.

The primary factor that made the difference between the two countries is a lifesaving trait that most Australians display.  In contrast, Americans have shown they lack trust in science and institutions, and especially in each other.  In global surveys, Australians were more likely than Americans to agree that “most people can be trusted” — a major factor, in getting people to change their behavior for the common good.  Australians have shown they are better at combating Covid by a willingness to reduce their movements, wear masks, and get vaccinated.  Partly because of that compliance, which kept the virus more in check, Australia’s economy has grown faster than America’s through the pandemic.  But of greater importance is interpersonal trust — a belief that others would do what was right not just for the individual but for the community.  That has saved lives.

549.  More transmissible subvariants are in South Africa – a future portent for us.

         Q:  Are there any new variants out there coming our way?

         A:  National Geographic recently reported that two newer subvariants of Omicron are again causing a surge of Covid-19 cases in South Africa.  Studies show that these new subvariants are so different from the original version of Omicron that immunity generated from a previous infection may not provide much protection.  Dubbed BA.4 and BA.5, the new subvariants are nearly identical to each other, and both are more transmissible than the Omicron BA.2 subvariant.  In South Africa, they replaced the BA.3 strain in less than a month. They are now responsible for a spike in South Africa’s COVID-19 cases, which has tripled since mid-April.  “If you were unvaccinated, what you got is almost no immunity to BA.4 and BA.5,” says Alex Sigal, a virologist at the Africa Health Research Institute and at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. “There might be some immunity that may be enough to protect against severe disease, but not sufficient to protect against symptomatic infection.”

For now, the subvariant known as BA.2.12.1 remains dominant in the U.S., causing new hospitalizations to spike recently by more than 17 percent nationally and by as much as 28 percent in the Great Lakes area, and Washington D.C.  But these new subvariants have already spread to more than 20 countries across North America, Asia, and Europe.  If the experience in South Africa is a forecast for the U.S., we may have to react again to surges by this Fall.  The lack of Congress continuing its funding for Covid mitigation could lead to dramatic consequences.

550.  Monkey Pox cases are increasing, but it is not related to Covid-19.

         Q:  What is this “monkey Pox” I’m hearing about – a new mutation of Covid?

         A:  Monkeypox is a more benign version of the smallpox virus and can be treated with an antiviral drug developed for smallpox. Unlike measles, Covid or influenza, it does not typically cause large outbreaks.  Infection begins with fever and body aches. Its most recognizable feature is a characteristic rash that starts with flat red marks, then becomes raised and filled with pus.

In the past few weeks, Britain has identified nine monkeypox cases, Spain has 23 suspected cases, and Canada is investigating at least 15 possible cases in Montreal.

In Britain, only one patient had recently traveled — to Nigeria, where a strain of the monkeypox virus has been commonly seen — while the remaining patients may have acquired the infection through community transmission.

The virus can spread via body fluids, contaminated objects, or respiratory droplets expelled by an infected person. The cases in Britain and Canada were mostly spread among sexual partners.  Monkeypox is typically spread through bites or scratches from rodents and small mammals — not, despite its name, from monkeys. Risk factors also include contact with animals through hunting or consumption of wild game or bush meat.