This winter's U.S. COVID surge is fading fast, likely thanks to a 'wall' of immunity
SCOTT DETROW, HOST:
Some good news, for a change, about the pandemic. This winter's COVID-19 surge appears to be fading without hitting nearly as hard as many had feared. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has the story.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: No one expected this winter surge to be anywhere as awful as the last two, but all the ingredients were there for things to still get pretty nasty. Both the flu and RSV had come roaring back really early this fall. The most contagious omicron subvariant yet took off just as the holidays arrived, and most people were acting like the pandemic was over, letting all three viruses spread like crazy. So there were big fears of hospitals getting completely overwhelmed again and lots of people getting really sick and dying. But that's not what happened. Michael Osterholm studies infectious diseases at the University of Minnesota.
MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: This virus continues to throw 210-mile-an-hour curveballs at us. People all assumed that we would see major transmission. Well, every time we think that we have some reason to believe we know what it's going to do, it doesn't do that.
STEIN: Hospitalizations and deaths from COVID did increase after New Year's but soon started falling again and have continued receding now for weeks. The flu and RSV waves continue to fade, too. And so the worst looks like it's probably over. Jennifer Nuzzo runs the pandemic center at Brown University.
JENNIFER NUZZO: I'm glad to say that we didn't have as much of a crush of infections as many thought was possible, which was very much welcome news.
STEIN: The big question is, why? Several factors may have played a role. Maybe people were more careful than public health experts had expected. But that doesn't really appear to be the case. Maybe something known as viral interference helped. That's when getting infected with one virus interferes with getting another. So maybe RSV and the flu crowded out COVID in the same way COVID crowded out those viruses the last two years. But many experts think the main reason is all the immunity people have built up from all the infections and vaccinations they've gotten. Dr. Carlos Del Rio from Emory University heads the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
CARLOS DEL RIO: We have what I would call now a better immunity barrier between vaccinations and prior infection. All of us are - if not totally protected, we are somewhat better protected. And that immunological wall is real.
STEIN: But none of this means we don't have to worry about COVID anymore. More than 400 people are still dying every day from COVID. That's way better than the thousands who died during the darkest days of the last two winter surges, but it's still pretty awful and far more than die from, say, the flu. William Hanage is an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
WILLIAM HANNAGE: It's beyond question that society has moved into a stage where the pandemic is, for most of us, if not over, then certainly quiet. And that's a great thing. Long may it remain so. Is it the case that there is no preventable suffering? No. There is still preventable suffering and death.
STEIN: Most of those dying are the elderly, many of whom have not received the latest booster. So getting them boosted could help a lot. And the rest of us may need yet another booster, too, at some point to help further keep COVID's threat at bay. And it's still possible another wave of flu could hit this year. There's also always the possibility of yet another even more dangerous variant emerging. Rob Stein, NPR News.
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