Toward the beginning of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy’s latest podcast, the center’s director, epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, makes this statement about COVID-19: “there’s no arguing that we’re in the midst of a surge.”
Similarly, the title of a recent article in the New York Times began, “We are in a big COVID wave…”
Both statements are driven at least in part by data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that COVID-19 levels measured in wastewater are now higher nationally than they have been for almost two years.
Both Osterholm and the New York Times article are quick to point out that the exact magnitude of the current wave is a bit uncertain due to the loss of some federal monitoring efforts.
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Making sense of the remaining data is also complicated, they report, because of the changing nature of the pandemic. The population has gained immunity due to exposure and vaccination — but some of that immunity might now be waning. Osterholm reported that the now-dominant JN.1 variant might not cause as much severe illness, even while it might be leading to more digestive symptoms and therefore greater virus shedding into the nation’s wastewater.
Either way, the existing data shows that while the nation ended 2023 with COVID-19 hospitalizations on the rise, so far the number of hospital admissions during this wave is well below the pandemic’s peak in January 2022. And it is below the smaller peaks the nation experienced in July 2022 and January 2023.
Minnesota’s story is a bit different
Wastewater data does not show as dramatic an upturn in COVID-19 here in Minnesota as is the case nationally. According to the University of Minnesota’s on-going Wastewater Surveillance Study, COVID-19 activity is trending up, but only to the levels measured back in March and April of last year, and less than half of the levels measured last February.
Minnesota’s COVID-19 hospitalizations, on the other hand, are now matching the highest levels seen in 2023. According to the Minnesota Department of Health’s data, there were 558 new COVID-19 admissions during the week ending Dec. 26, only one admission below the 2023 peak of 559 admissions the week ending Jan. 3, 2023.
This upswing in COVID-19 hospitalizations, while still well below peaks in the first three years of the pandemic, is concerning. Especially since Minnesota is also experiencing continued increases in hospitalizations due to the two major seasonal respiratory illnesses, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and influenza.
Amid these increases, people should consider the various mitigation measures that are available, such as being up to date on vaccines, testing after exposure or when symptomatic and masking, especially for those at heightened risk.
In CIDRAP’s latest podcast, Osterholm reiterated the importance of using N-95 respirators for optimal protection against air-borne disease and noted the continued efficacy of Paxlovid for those who end up getting COVID-19.