‘Living with COVID’: where the pandemic could go next

LONDON/CHICAGO, Aug. 1 (Reuters) – As the third winter of the coronavirus pandemic looms in the northern hemisphere, scientists are warning weary governments and populations to brace for more waves of COVID-19.

In the United States alone, there could be up to a million infections a day this winter, Chris Murray, chief of the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), an independent modeling group at the University of Washington tracking the pandemic, told Reuters. That would be about double the current daily total.

In the UK and Europe, scientists are predicting a series of COVID waves as people spend more time indoors during the colder months, this time with no masking or social distancing restrictions.

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While the number of cases could rise again in the coming months, the number of deaths and hospitalizations are unlikely to rise at the same intensity, the experts said, aided by vaccination and booster drives, previous infection, milder variants and the availability of highly effective COVID-19. -treatments.

“The people most at risk are those who have never seen the virus, and there is hardly anyone left,” Murray said.

These predictions raise new questions about when countries will move out of the COVID emergency phase and into a state of endemic disease, where communities with high vaccination rates will see smaller outbreaks, possibly on a seasonal basis.

Many experts had predicted that the transition would begin in early 2022, but the arrival of the highly mutated Omicron variant of coronavirus shattered those expectations.

“We need to get the idea of ​​’is the pandemic over?’ put aside,” said Adam Kucharski, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He and others see COVID turning into an endemic threat that still carries a high burden of disease.

“Someone once told me that the definition of endemic is that life just gets a little bit worse,” he added.

The potential wildcard remains as to whether a new variant will emerge that surpasses the current dominant Omicron sub-variants.

If that variant also causes more severe disease and is better able to evade previous immunity, that would be the “worst-case scenario,” according to a recent report from the World Health Organization (WHO) Europe.

“All scenarios (with new variants) point to the potential for a large future wave at levels as bad or worse than the epidemic waves of 2020/2021,” the report said, based on a model from Imperial College of London.

SUBSTITUTE FACTORS

Many of the disease experts interviewed by Reuters said making predictions for COVID has become much more difficult as many people rely on rapid at-home tests that go unreported to government health officials, obscuring the infection rate.

BA.5, the Omicron subvariant currently causing infections in many regions, is extremely transmissible, meaning that many patients hospitalized for other illnesses can test positive for it and be counted as severe cases, even if COVID -19 not the source of their distress.

Scientists said other unknowns complicating their predictions include whether a combination of vaccination and COVID infection — so-called hybrid immunity — gives people more protection, as well as how effective booster campaigns can be.

“Anyone who says they can predict the future of this pandemic is either being overconfident or lying,” said David Dowdy, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Experts are also closely monitoring developments in Australia, where a resurgent flu season coupled with COVID is overwhelming hospitals. They say it’s possible Western countries could see a similar pattern after several quiet flu seasons.

“If it happens there, it could happen here. Let’s prepare for a good flu season,” said John McCauley, director of the Worldwide Influenza Center at the Francis Crick Institute in London.

The WHO has said that every country still needs to approach new waves with every tool in the pandemic arsenal – from vaccinations to interventions, such as testing and social distancing or masking.

The Israeli government recently halted routine COVID testing of travelers at its international airport, but is poised to resume the practice “within days” if they face a major increase, said Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of the public service. health service of the country.

“When there’s a wave of infections, we have to put on masks, we have to test ourselves,” she said. “That’s living with COVID.”

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Report by Jennifer Rigby and Julie Steenhuysen; Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Bill Berkrot

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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