What COVID cases in Europe could signal for the U.S.

By The Health News Team | March 28, 2022
Gargoyle wearing a health mask

The newest version of the omicron variant — known as “stealth omicron” or BA.2 — has been leading to a surge of COVID-19 in Western Europe. The U.K., Germany, France, Austria and other areas have all seen cases multiply in the last few weeks, causing many to wonder whether the same could happen in the U.S.

While the subvariant of omicron is not likely to lead to more severe illness than prior coronavirus variants, it is thought to be more contagious than the original omicron and more resistant to existing COVID-19 treatments. With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reporting that as of March 28, 55% of new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. are caused by the BA.2 variant, experts are concerned that what we are witnessing in Europe could be a preview of what might happen here as mitigation efforts are lifted.

What’s more, the CDC has found that wastewater samples collected across the U.S. recently show an increase in viral activity. Wastewater surveillance detects fragments of coronavirus in sewage systems and has historically provided warning of an approaching surge in COVID-19 cases.

Lifting restrictions could lead to increasing infections
Even as these concerns circulate across the country, however, most states have dropped spread-prevention tactics, such as universal masking. In California, masks are no longer required in indoor public spaces, with the exception of health care facilities, public transportation and a few other select locations. Additionally, requirements that all attendees of “mega-events” — sporting events, concerts, fairs, conventions and other large gatherings — show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test are being lifted April 1.

"Unfortunately, we don’t seem to be learning the lessons we’re supposed to from our experiences over the past two years,” says Dr. Abisola Olulade, a family medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “Whenever restrictions are relieved, you inevitably see a rise in cases. So it is wholly plausible — and possible — that infections could once aging increase here.”

Vaccines and boosters remain vital
While the lifting of spread-prevention measures plays a key role, experts also note that additional conditions could contribute to a new wave of COVID-19 in the U.S. These include waning immunity from earlier vaccination or infection, as well as the large number of eligible people who have not yet received a COVID-19 vaccine and booster.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 76% of eligible people in the U.S. have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, but just under 66% are considered fully vaccinated and only 45% have received a booster dose. A recent study in the U.K. — where daily case counts have more than doubled recently due to the stealth omicron — found that after a mRNA vaccine booster dose, protection against infection increases to around 70% and protection against severe disease, hospitalization and death is a whopping 83%, even more than 10 weeks after receiving a booster.

“We need to increase the willingness of individuals to be vaccinated and boosted,” Dr. Olulade says. "And we have to look at the numbers we’re seeing in Europe and prepare for a possible surge."

Prepare, don’t panic
According to Dr. Olulade, the way to prevent an increase in COVID-19 case numbers is to be realistic about the fact that the coronavirus can still spread, especially among those not vaccinated and boosted. While many people are protected from severe illness — whether from vaccination, boosters, infection or a combination of them all — a rise in COVID-19 cases always leads to a rise in some hospitalizations and death.

"We have to learn to strike a balance,” she says. “Instead of acting as if COVID-19 is no longer an issue, we have to be very honest with ourselves, prepare for the possibility of a wave of new cases, and act accordingly for the health and safety of everyone in our community."

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