For the first time in three years, Americans could head into the winter respiratory virus season with a measure of optimism, experts say, even as Covid cases appear to be ticking up.
"We're in a different place," said Dr. Mandy Cohen, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Widespread immunity from either Covid infection or vaccination, as well as updated booster shots, is reassuring public health officials ahead of the typical cold and flu season.
"I think we're the most prepared that we've ever been," Cohen said.
Anecdotes about family members, friends and neighbors who test positive for Covid are picking up steam, and Covid-related hospitalizations have been trending upward in recent weeks, according to NBC News data.
Still, the U.S. is nowhere near the level of severe Covid cases it has seen since the beginning of the pandemic.
One of the earliest indications of Covid spread is found in wastewater. People who have been infected with the coronavirus shed it in sewage pipes several days before they show symptoms. That means sewage can detect Covid long before a test can.
Despite sporadic upticks in illness, the CDC says that overall, its more than 1,500 wastewater collection sites nationwide are not finding any consistent data to suggest that a Covid surge is looming.
"Rates are low across the country, and we're not seeing any consistent increases that are indicative of a coming wave," said Amy Kirby, who heads the CDC's wastewater monitoring program.
That most likely means any Covid-related wastewater signals from earlier in the summer have plateaued.
Despite the apparent plateau, Covid continues to spread and mutate, always perfecting its ability to infect humans and transmit more easily.
So far, Cohen said, our arsenal against the virus — antiviral treatments and vaccines, for example — appears to be holding steady.
"We are still seeing that virus change," Cohen said, "but what we know is that virus is still susceptible to our vaccines." As of Thursday, omicron subvariant EG.5 was the predominant Covid strain circulating in the U.S.
The latest round of Covid vaccines is expected next month, Cohen confirmed Thursday.
The Food and Drug Administration is expected to authorize updated Covid shots in the coming weeks, with CDC signoff by mid-September, she said.
Meanwhile, infectious disease experts remind people that the typical means of protection continue to be effective: Stay home when you're sick, and steer clear of others who are.
What's more, advised Dr. Kavita Patel, an NBC News medical contributor, "if you find yourself in really crowded spaces, that mask still comes in handy, and it actually works."