LOWELL — The COVID-19 pandemic may be in the rearview mirror for many, but an ongoing bump in the number of reported cases is serving as a reminder that the virus is still present and is unlikely to disappear any time soon.
The region is experiencing a relatively small spike in the number of COVID-19 cases at a time of year that does not typically see high transmission of respiratory viruses. To Tufts Medicine System Chief Infection Control Officer Dr. Shira Doron, the current spread of the virus is indicative that it has yet to “settle in” to the typical seasonal patterns seen in other respiratory infections like influenza.
Doron said Aug. 31 that the bump in cases right now is quite minor compared to the more severe waves earlier in the pandemic, both in the number of cases being reported and in the severity of the cases on average thanks in large part to the immunity that has been built up between prior infections and vaccinations.
“Case by case today, COVID is less deadly than the flu,” said Doron.
The actual number of acute cases and deaths from COVID-19, Doron said, is currently higher than that of the flu, largely because there is a lot more of the COVID virus going around than the flu, which itself settled back into its typical seasonal patterns after it had been disrupted by social distancing and general isolation during the pandemic.
Doron said she conducted research in which hospitals would report whether they gave a COVID-19 patient any of the various treatments that have been made available to treat severe cases. In that research, she said she found that the number of patients with COVID-19 who needed these treatments has fallen.
“In January 2022, 50% of those in the hospital got those meds,” said Doron. “By that April, it had dropped to about 30%, where it has remained ever since.”
One of the best ways to mitigate one’s personal risk from COVID-19, Doron said, is by taking care of one’s general health before they ever get sick.
“This is the time to optimize underlying health while cases are relatively low,” said Doron. “You can’t change your age, which is the No. 1 risk factor, but you can get things like diabetes and hypertension under control, and you can practice good hygiene.”
As has been said countless times since the pandemic began, good hygiene consists of properly washing your hands often, refraining from touching your face and staying away from people who are sick, or keeping away from others when you are sick yourself.
While millions sought out the original doses of the COVID-19 vaccines in 2021 and 2022, Doron said that vaccination against the virus is beginning to look like that of influenza, where a new version of the vaccine is made annually to target the specific strains that are expected to be prominent in any given year.
An updated version of the vaccine is expected to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the coming days, and it would target the current most prominent variants of COVID-19.
“The new recommendation is to get one dose of the most up-to-date vaccine,” said Doron. “They got rid of the concept of the primary series and how many boosters you have. You now either have the latest booster, or you have nothing.”
The uptick in cases is playing out similarly in other parts of the state. Dr. Kimi Kobayashi, interim co-president of UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, said that in recent months, before the current uptick, COVID-19 hospitalizations appeared to be close to an all-time low. With the number of mutations the virus has undergone in almost three years, Kobayashi said the virus is continuing the trend of becoming more transmissible.
“The more recent variants have become more transmissible, but also less deadly,” said Kobayashi. “In general, we are not seeing the sort of mortality we saw early on with strains like delta.”
The disease can still be severe for those with underlying comorbidities, and Kobayashi said those people should not be forgotten.
“What we often see is patients who are already vulnerable in their health, COVID is still a real thing for them,” said Kobayashi. “If you go out it may seem like there is no pandemic, but it is still out there.”