Despite Another COVID Surge, Deaths Remain Low

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Although new Omicron subvariants have led to another rise in coronavirus cases in the US in recent weeks, deaths have remained at some of the lowest levels of the pandemic.

The recent death toll breaks with the trend seen so far during the pandemic, where deaths tend to rise a few weeks after a surge in infections. That likely means most Americans now carry some form of immune protection, whether from vaccines or previous infections, according to The New York Times.

“In previous waves, there were still substantial pockets of people who had not been vaccinated or exposed to the virus, and so were at the same risk of dying as people at the beginning of the pandemic,” David Dowdy, MD, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told the newspaper.

“Those pockets don’t exist anymore,” he said.

At a regional level, deaths have slightly increased in the Northeast, where the latest wave began. The national death toll will likely climb slowly in coming weeks as the wave moves across the South and West, the Times reported, though the death rates will likely remain lower than in previous surges.

Some populations continue to die at higher rates. Adults older than age 65 years now account for a larger share of COVID-19 deaths than they did last year, according to the latest CDC data. Unvaccinated people continue to die at much higher rates than vaccinated people despite gaining some protection from prior infections. And people with compromised immune systems also continue to face higher risks.

With infections surging and remaining steadily above 100,000 daily cases for the past month, and hospitalizations rising above 30,000, deaths have hovered between 300 and 350 per day, according to the data tracker from the Times. The death rate is now one-tenth the number recorded in January 2021, when deaths reached the highest point of the pandemic, and remains at the lowest levels seen since the summer of 2021.

But 300 deaths per day means that the coronavirus is killing more than twice the number of Americans daily as suicide or car crashes, the newspaper reported. Those who survive after severe cases may develop long COVID and have disabling symptoms for life. About 1 in 5 adult survivors ages 18 to 64 years and 1 in 4 survivors over age 65 years have reported some version of long COVID, according to a recent study published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Several Omicron subvariants are adding to the current caseload. BA.2.12.1 remains the dominant form of the coronavirus in the US, making up about 64% of cases as of mid-June, according to the latest CDC data. BA.2 accounts for 14%, followed by BA.5 with 13.3%, and BA.4 with 8.3%. Sometime this summer, BA.4 and BA.5 are expected to become the dominant forms of the virus.

Now, public health officials are turning their thoughts to what’s next. As congressional funding for the coronavirus response dwindles and many Americans pass on booster shots, the separation between infection surges, hospitalizations, and deaths may not last, according to the Times. The Omicron subvariants continue to evolve, and immunity from vaccines and infections will decline this summer.

“As the time since people got vaccinated becomes longer and longer, the efficacy of the immune response will be lessened,” Abraar Karan, MD, an infectious disease doctor at Stanford University, told the newspaper.

“We can be caught off guard later this year,” he said.

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