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Is Covid’s winter surge already here? Experts warn the pandemic isn’t over

“I don’t think the spike will be as bad as last winter because we have vaccines available and the approval for younger age groups is a big game changer,” one public health expert said.
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A new surge of Covid-19 cases is expected to start hitting the United States around Thanksgiving just as the holiday season begins, public health experts are warning.

But with more and more Americans vaccinated, it’s not likely to linger as long or do as much damage because there’s a level of protection this season that wasn’t there last year, they say.

“I don’t think the spike will be as bad as last winter because we have vaccines available and the approval for younger age groups is a big game changer, especially for hospitalizations and death rates,” said Monica Wang, an associate professor of community health sciences at the Boston University School of Public Health.

Dr. Sadiya Khan, an epidemiologist at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, agreed.

“I remain hopeful with the approval of vaccines for 5- to 11-year-olds that we are heading into a safer holiday season than last year,” she said.

Still, the threat of another Covid surge is real and political leaders like California Gov. Gavin Newsom, whose state is still recovering from a wave of delta variant infections that clogged hospital emergency rooms, are urging Americans to remain vigilant.

Winter is coming,” he said Tuesday at an economic summit, echoing the familiar but ominous warning made famous on the television show “Game of Thrones.” “Covid is not taking the winter off.”

In fact, the winter surge may already be underway, according to the latest projections from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington’s school of medicine.

“We see increasing evidence in the Northern Hemisphere that the expected winter surge has started to unfold,” Director Dr. Christopher Murray said in his latest update.

This is due in part to colder weather driving people inside and the immunity from vaccinations starting to decrease.

“The third factor that’s fueling these winter increases is the fact that people are much less cautious than last winter, as mask use is much lower,” Murray said.

Gypsyamber D’Souza, professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said a Covid surge is inevitable this time of year.

“We do expect to see a surge in new cases over the holidays as people get together more and travel more,” she said. “The good news is more than two-thirds of Americans have been vaccinated and that means any increase in new cases will lead to less burden of hospitalization and deaths than it did last year.”

D’Souza's advice is to be smart and use the tools we know work.

“It’s completely appropriate for small groups of vaccinated people to get together,” she said. “We know what works. We have the tools. We know that getting vaccinated and wearing masks in enclosed public spaces work. We know that getting together outside, weather permitting, works.”

And when the surge comes, it will hit some states a lot harder than others.

“I think it’s likely that we’ll see hot spots in certain regions,” Wang said. “Specifically states that have lower vaccination rates like Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, North Dakota and Utah.”

Nearly 760,000 people in the U.S. have been killed by Covid and more than 46.5 million confirmed cases have been reported since the start of the pandemic, according to the latest statistics compiled by NBC News. Both are dismal — and world-leading — numbers.

Despite the fact that the U.S. was one of the first nations to get the Covid vaccine, it is “underperforming compared to its peers in terms of vaccination rates,” Wang said.

“That’s certainly disappointing and also tragic because we can prevent a lot of deaths,” she said. “With Covid deaths, the vast majority are among people who have not been vaccinated.”

While the number of new cases in the U.S. has decreased in the past few months, Europe has seen a big spike, especially in Eastern European countries such as Romania and Bulgaria, where vaccine hesitancy is high and fear has been fanned by church leaders and right-wing politicians

The situation in Europe is so dire that the World Health Organization is warning the continent could see another half-million deaths because of Covid by February. 

This week, though, travelers from Europe and elsewhere around the world began streaming back to the U.S. after a 20-month ban on international visitors that was imposed at the start of the pandemic. 

D’Souza said Americans should not be alarmed by the return of foreign tourists.

“The people traveling here are at lower risk because they’re required to be vaccinated before they even get on the plane,” she said. “So if there is a surge here, it won’t be coming from Europe. And don’t forget, we already have a high level of Covid infections right here in the United States.”