More people are getting seriously ill with the flu in the United States than with COVID-19, a demonstration of this year’s severe flu season — but also of the waning severity of a pandemic that once brought the world to its knees.
Figures collected by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the weekly rate of flu hospitalizations hit 5.9 per 100,000 people, a level not seen at this time of year in more than a decade. ‘a decade.
For COVID-19, however, the rate fell to 4.3 per 100,000, well below January’s high of 34.8. Figures for influenza and COVID-19 are for the week ending December 3, the most recent data available.
The waning severity of COVID-19 comes after President Joe Biden declared in September that “the pandemic is over.”
The number of COVID-19 cases in the United States has increased in recent weeks, with nearly 5,000 daily hospitalizations. But for COVID-19 to qualify as a pandemic virus, “the threshold would be for it to continue to completely disrupt hospitals,” said Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “And I don’t think COVID-19 has done that for a while.”
We have “stopped seeing hospitals besieged by the virus”, he added.
COVID-19 measures have stopped the flu. Why experts say the upcoming season is unpredictable
Although COVID-19 is no longer as threatening as it once was, public health officials across the United States have expressed distrust of rising case numbers, especially amid of a “tri-demic” of COVID-19, respiratory syncytial virus (or RSV) and influenza. Parts of the United States have warned of localized shortages of drugs to treat sick patients, including some antibiotics and painkillers.
In California, some school districts and counties — including Los Angeles — have warned they may reinstate mask mandates if the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients continues to rise. Nassau Community College in Uniondale, NY, plans to bring back a mask mandate next week.
Between influenza, RSV, rhinovirus and parainfluenza viruses, “you have six or seven different pathogens” of concern in the United States right now, said Peter Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.
“And masks also help with that,” he said.
Epidemiologists in the United States continue to track the spread of new variants of COVID-19, including the recombinant XBB variant that has spread widely in places like Singapore, and has started to become more visible in the United States. Scientists say XBB is of concern because it appears to be more resistant to vaccines, although infected patients tend to show relatively mild symptoms.
But overall, “it’s hard to say right now whether or not this will be a major, significant wave,” Dr Hotez said.
Unlike the past two winters, “we haven’t seen one sub-variant really dominate,” he added.
Europe, whose waves of COVID-19 generally preceded those in the United States, also experienced a milder winter surge this year.
“So that tells me it might not be as bad as the previous ones,” Dr. Hotez said.
That said, he added, “we don’t have a lot of experience with this new situation, where you have multiple variants within this wave.”
The decreasing severity of COVID-19 is the result of broad exposure to the virus and effective ways to treat it. A large percentage of the world’s population has now been infected with or immune to COVID-19.
In November, the World Health Organization reported a 90% drop in deaths from COVID-19, compared to nine months earlier. Over 70% of the world’s population has now been vaccinated in one form or another.
Newer variants emerging today “are much more manageable due to population immunity,” Dr Adalja said.
Treatments like Paxlovid, an antiviral drug that was approved for use in the United States last year, have also proven effective. The Centers for Disease Control reported that adults who take oral medications are 50% less likely to enter hospital with COVID-19.
Yet all of this is cold comfort for health care providers, for whom COVID-19 infections matter less than the total number of incoming patients, which in some places has reached new highs.
A hospital in Pomona, Calif., recently handled a record 382 ER visits in a single day and set up a flu clinic in an auditorium, according to the Los Angeles Times. Other hospitals are reporting double their regular number of incoming patients.
In the United States, hospitals have reached capacities not seen since last January.
“It’s not like COVID-19 is the only game in town anymore,” Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, told ABC News. “You can get COVID-19 and then you can get a cold or you can get RSV and then you get the flu.”
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