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EDITORIAL: The peril of complacency during COVID 2.0

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The latest BA.5 variant has caused a sharp uptick in COVID cases, albeit with milder symptoms. It’s a good reminder that the virus is not gone though. | PHOTO COURTESY OF ROD LONG/UNSPLASH

This year has been very different from the preceding two years for my family.

We’ve begun traveling to see extended family, vacationing for weeks at a time, going to work conferences around the country, and attending concerts and sporting events. Our daughters have gotten to spend more quality time with their grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends than probably the last two years combined.

Jacob Owens
Delaware Business Times

For all intents and purposes, 2022 has felt very much like 2019 and a welcome breath of fresh air.

At least until recently.

It seems that COVID is virtually everywhere again at the moment, fueled by the latest BA.5 Omicron subvariant.

President Joe Biden confirmed that he had contracted the virus on July 21, and just a few hours later, Delaware Sen. Tom Carper made the same announcement. They weren’t alone among elected leaders, as Sens. Chuck Schumer, Joe Manchin and Lisa Murkowski have all announced positive tests in recent days.

In Delaware, positive cases are ramping up again to levels not seen since the Delta variant surge in January. The seven-day average for percentage of positive cases reached 20.6% on July 23, up from 13.4% just a month prior. That surge in new positive cases is coming as the state sees an uptick in the number of tests performed, meaning the higher averages are not an anomaly derived from a few more sick people. Hospitalizations also rose by more than 30% between July 12 and 25, with 148 patients then seeking care for more severe cases.

 Those figures paint some of the picture for the current surge, but they largely bely the reality as they only capture PCR testing recorded by the state – experts estimate that we’re only capturing about 10% of true testing with such data. With at-home rapid tests now widely available, many people are no longer seeking the more intensive, albeit more accurate, tests that require laboratory work.

Anecdotally, it seems that everywhere I go someone is missing from a meeting or event due to quarantining after a positive test or potential exposure. And while my family was able to avoid COVID for more than two years, the recent surge caught up to us too as we began to let our guards down.

While we may now carry the Scarlet Letter, I’m glad to report that our symptoms have been very mild to nearly non-existent – a byproduct of the more contagious but less severe BA.5. University of Delaware epidemiology professor Jennifer Horney also told me recently that experience is likely a result of our prior vaccinations.

Jennifer Horney, Ph.D. | PHOTO COURTESY OF UD

“It seems that natural immunity from being previously infected with COVID and vaccinations that are more than a few months prior aren’t providing great protection against infection from BA.5, but are still providing pretty good protection for hospitalization and deaths,” she said, noting that the risk of becoming hospitalized with the latest strain if unvaccinated is about 40 to 45 times higher than if you have been, with boosters adding another 10% of protection.

Horney emphasized that we are still in a pandemic or a public health emergency, despite guidance that has eased measures like masking and social distancing this year. That return to “normal,” however, should not come with a foolhardy belief that COVID is firmly in the rearview mirror. Delaware has seen 615 COVID deaths reported in 2022, or nearly 20% of the state’s COVID deaths throughout the pandemic.

We also don’t have to look far to see the consequences of complacency as monkeypox has quickly moved from a decades-long endemic in a small number of African countries to a global problem, including in the U.S. where more than 3,000 cases have been reported in 45 states. This transmissible virus causes flu-like symptoms and skin lesions all over the body. While treatable and with an available vaccination, it is known to be deadly if not treated properly, especially in children.

Luckily, monkeypox cases remain isolated for now, but it serves as a reminder that the world has reopened to international travel again. Problems that we’ve been able to contain and address at home are now more frequently going to spread worldwide again, and with COVID that will mean new variants of the virus – possibly ones that are even more contagious or severe.

Horney urged caution, saying, “I think we’re at this critical time where people are still doing summer vacations and we’re getting ready to go back to school – so people are kind of back to their normal. But we’re still really living with the pandemic, so people should definitely not think that everything is over.”

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