Despite a slight increase in the number of covid-19 cases across the country, rates remain low, and they are far below the past few summers, both regionally and nationally.
“Overall, we’ve had a pretty flat trajectory,” LuAnn Brink, chief epidemiologist for the Allegheny County Health Department, said Monday. “The changes that we’re experiencing now are in the dozens per week compared to going from 30 to 300 cases that we had a couple of years ago.”
Dr. Amy Crawford-Faucher, a family physician at Allegheny Health Network, attributes the slight uptick to hot weather driving people indoors.
“Like with any respiratory illness, you tend to see more of it when people are breathing in close proximity,” she said.
People are still contracting the virus, but in small numbers.
“We’re seeing a whole lot more Lyme disease than we are covid,” said Crawford-Faucher, who also is vice chair for the Primary Care Institute.
In Allegheny County, the number of infections rose by 17 to 160 for the week ending Aug. 2, according to the county health department. That’s down significantly from Jan. 1, when infections were over 1,100.
Case infection data for Westmoreland County was not available for the same period.
Across the country, 8,035 people were admitted to hospitals during the week ending July 22, a 12% increase over the previous week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There are a few reasons why covid rates have remained low.
One is that, unless there’s extreme weather, summer means people are getting more fresh air. In addition, there are more tools at our disposal: a combination of immunity from vaccines and from previous infections. The antiviral drug Paxlovid has reduced hospital admissions.
“It’s also that the circulating strains of omicron these days have not been as virulent as they have been in the last year,” Crawford-Faucher said.
As the weather turns cooler and illness tends to spread easily, experts recommend getting the latest bivalent covid booster shot — much like an annual flu shot.
“Yes, infection rates are very low right now, but as we move inside in the fall and winter, we suspect that those rates will climb, and this is a very straightforward and simple way to avoid getting very sick,” she said. “If folks have not gotten a booster since the fall of 2022, we recommend that people do so.”
She said the shot helps reduce the severity of covid and cuts the risks of long covid.
But she admits it has been difficult to persuade people to get a booster if they are not at high risk for infection.
“It’s been a tough sell to try to convince folks who either didn’t get the booster before or got the primary vaccination series and never got the booster,” Crawford-Faucher said.
The new booster available in the fall “will be like flu shots in that they will be the most up to date, being able to provide additional protection about what’s circulating,” she said. “We’re looking at it as an annual respiratory virus booster like the flu shot.”
And like a flu shot, some people may contract the latest strain, but their experience should be less severe. And it helps protect more vulnerable patients.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, stressed the importance of prioritizing boosters for people who are older, have compromised immune systems or have other risks.
“I think we need more targeted and nuanced messaging because that’s the way we get the most impact out of the boosters,” said Adalja, who is based in Pittsburgh. “What we find with the hospitalizations and deaths that are still occurring from covid — it’s often people who may not have been up to date on their vaccines or may not have called their doctor and got Paxlovid.
“Even though covid is not a public health emergency anymore, the toll that it takes right now is in the high-risk populations,” Adalja said. “This is preventable if we use the tools that medicine and science have developed.”
With covid-19 now in the regular rotation of viruses, folks should be aware that they may contract it more than once, Adalja said.
“Everyone is probably already been on that date and will have a second, third, fourth and more in the future,” he said. “Humans are married to covid just like they are to all endemic respiratory viruses.”
Stephanie Ritenbaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephanie at [email protected].