Covid-19 Subvariant Has Spread In Most Metro Areas In The US

First American News LLC-New York, NY – More than half the U.S. population lives in counties where Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations are high enough that people should wear masks in indoor public settings, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

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The CDC’s latest assessment represents a significant jump from the week before, reflecting the added pressure that the easily spread Omicron BA.5 subvariant is putting on the U.S. since it became the dominant Covid-19 strain. Over a third of U.S. counties now fall into the CDC’s “high” category, up from one in five counties a week earlier.

Los Angeles County—the largest in the country, with more than 10 million people—recently joined the list. And if it stays there for two weeks, officials say they will reinstate an indoor masking requirement on July 29.

More than two years into the pandemic, such mandates are rare, with health authorities largely leaving it to people to decide whether to mask.

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Roughly 35% of U.S. counties—accounting for 54% of the population—show a “high” level of Covid-19, as defined by the CDC’s three-tier criteria to monitor rates of infection and strain on communities’ healthcare systems.

The CDC looks at weekly county numbers for new Covid-19 hospital admissions per 100,000 population, the percent of hospital beds used by Covid-19
patients and total new Covid cases per 100,000 residents to calculate community risk.

When a county hits high-level risk, the CDC guidance is to mask in indoor public settings and on public transit as a way to try to limit the spread of infection. The CDC most recently counted 1,278 “medium” and 802 “low” counties. The agency advises people in medium counties to mask up if they have symptoms, a positive test or exposure to a person with Covid-19.

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There are now 1,143 counties on the CDC’s high list, a 71% increase from a week ago, the agency’s data show. While the rate of transmission is high, signs of acute illness remain muted, as treatments plus immunity from vaccines and previous infections reduce risks for many people. Epidemiologists caution, however, that cases still carry the risk of triggering long-Covid symptoms, and that high levels of transmission also put the elderly and immunocompromised at risk.

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Newly reported U.S. cases are averaging about 126,000 a day, CDC data show. The seven-day, moving average has increased in recent days after hovering closer to 100,000 for weeks, though cases still remain below the weekly average of 800,000 recorded during the height of the first Omicron wave in January.

But those figures are deceptive, according to Shira Shafir, associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles Fielding School of Public Health, because fewer cases are being reported now as people take Covid tests at home.

“The message has to be, number 1, we are clearly in a surge,” said Dr. Shafir. “Number 2, you can absolutely get reinfected even if you were infected within the last 90 days because of this transition we are seeing in the subvariants.” BA.5’s mutations are believed to make it particularly adept at causing repeat infections.

In Los Angeles, current case numbers are climbing fast, according to Barbara Ferrer, the director of public health for Los Angeles County.

“It’s unlikely that we’re at the peak of this recent surge, given the increased circulation of new variants of concern. And we already have an average of over 6,400 cases being reported per day,” said Dr. Ferrer at a press conference Thursday.

If Los Angeles County does return to its indoor mask mandate on July 29, it will last until numbers fall back into the medium CDC category, Dr. Ferrer said.

But even then, she said, the potential for new variants means people should stay on high alert, even with vaccinations and booster shots.

“The number of deaths from Covid this year is still very high,” Dr. Ferrer said. At 4,400 fatalities to date, Los Angeles County has had more Covid-19 deaths in the first six months of 2022 than it has had annually from any other infectious disease, she said.

Nationally, the U.S. has recently averaged about 350 deaths a day. That is closer to historic lows than highs. Hospitalizations are also far below peaks, but climbing, in part because of people who need care for other reasons but test positive for Covid-19. The seven-day average for confirmed Covid-19 patients in hospitals reached 35,570 on Friday, up 22% over the past two weeks.

Some public-health officials from other counties on the CDC high list issued advisories Friday for people to wear masks indoors.

In Milwaukee, Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson gave a strongly worded directive to mask up in public settings indoors, but declined to impose a mandate.

Illinois’ Cook County, which includes Chicago, issued a similar advisory, citing the CDC criteria and a rise in BA.4 and BA.5 infections. A spokesman said there were no plans for anything more at the moment.

In New York—where 10 counties are on the high list, including all five in New York City—public-health officials continued to promote voluntary indoor masking through social media and outreach campaigns, but didn’t mandate it.