COVID cases and hospitalizations are rising again across much of the country, leading many to worry that there's a COVID surge this August 2023. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention don't track weekly COVID cases any more, hospital admissions data suggest a COVID cases surge may be lurking around the corner.
A school in Kentucky had to close less than two weeks into the school year after one-fifth of its students came down with COVID, strep or the flu. COVID cases in New York City have been on the rise since July, local data show. The same goes for cases in Los Angeles.
However, health experts assure there’s no need to panic and that the overall numbers remain low compared to surges in recent years.
Is there a COVID summer surge?
"There has been an increase in cases anecdotally and over much of the United States," Dr. William Schaffner, professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, tells TODAY.com.
However, "it’s not a surge, and it’s not anything like we experienced one year or two years ago,” Schaffner stresses, adding that there's been a "distinct uptick" in hospitalizations, especially in the Southeast.
Cases will likely continue to increase in the fall and winter, NBC News medical contributor Dr. Natalie Azar said in an Aug. 24 segment on TODAY. "We don't know exactly when we're going to have a peak of COVID," she added.
Nationally, COVID-19 hospitalizations have been increasing steadily since July, according to CDC data. For the week ending in Aug. 12, there were 12,613 new hospitalizations, up from 10,370 the prior week.
An NBC News analysis found that, over the past two weeks, the average daily COVID hospitalization rate increased by almost 25%, and admissions to the intensive care unit have gone up over 16%. COVID cases in kids have increase by 12.8% in the same timeframe.
Maryland and North Carolina have the highest hospitalization rate per 100,000 people. Indiana, Minnesota and Connecticut have seen the greatest increase in hospitalizations over the past week, per the NBC News analysis.
New weekly COVID-19 hospitalizations have not been as high as they were in mid-August since April 2023. However, the death rate due to COVID is still decreasing week by week, per CDC data.
Hospitalizations are one of the best metrics to assess the burden of COVID-19, since the CDC stopped tracking new cases when the federal public health emergency ended in May 2023, NBC News previously reported. Decreased levels of testing have also made it harder to track where and how much cases are rising.
“We know that cases are being vastly underreported, so as a proxy, the CDC is using hospitalizations, ICU admissions and wastewater data,” NBC News Medical contributor Dr. Natalie Azar said in a TODAY segment aired Aug. 18.
Wastewater surveillance, which tests for the virus shed in sewage by people with or without symptoms, is one of the earliest indicators of COVID-19 spread. "Over half of the samples across the country are showing a spike in cases," said Azar.
Why is there an uptick in COVID cases and hospitalizations?
The EG.5 subvariant, a close relative of the omicron XBB family, now accounts for the largest proportion of COVID-19 cases in the country, making it the dominant strain in the U.S., per the latest CDC data. While EG.5 is likely more transmissible compared to its predecessors, there's no evidence it causes more severe disease or different symptoms, TODAY.com previously reported.
Another COVID subvariant, BA.2.86, also known as Pirola, has also been reported in the U.S. It's been making headlines for its large number of mutations that could make it a poor match for the new COVID vaccine booster expected to be released in September.
According to Azar, the rise in cases could be driven by both new strains that have a transmission advantage and waning immunity from prior infection or vaccination.
Why is this happening during the summer, when it isn't respiratory virus season and more people are outdoors? It's a question Schaffner gets asked often.
"Just looking at the behavior of COVID in the past, there have been summer increases in each of the past three years, and we're seeing that now," says Schaffner, adding that this just seems to be the way the virus behaves.
While summer is a time to enjoy the outdoors, many people are also seeking refuge from hot temperatures in the air conditioning indoors, he adds. A rebound in summer travel may also play a role.
"There are still plenty of people getting together in close proximity for prolonged periods of time to provide opportunities for highly contagious variants to spread," says Schaffner.
Is COVID on the rise again? Yes, but don't panic.
There is no need to panic, the experts emphasize, and unlike past summer surges, this recent uptick remains relatively low.
“It’s really important to reinforce that the absolute number is still much, much lower than in various different peaks throughout the last couple of years," said Azar.
“We’ve always had the expectation that there was going to be a seasonality to COVID, kind of similar to flu, that we’re going to see this ebb and flow,” she added.
However, Azar pointed out that we are more prepared now for an increase in COVID cases than we've ever been: "We’re in a different place than we were a few years ago. ... We have vaccines, we have an antiviral that works very well."
Vaccine manufacturers are currently working on an updated COVID-19 booster, which will likely become available in mid to late September once it gets approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, says Schaffner.
The CDC has not yet released any firm guidance around booster doses for the fall. When the agency does make recommendations about who should get the booster this fall, the experts anticipate it will be for high-risk individuals — people over the age of 65, people with underlying heal conditions and the immunocompromised.
If you have yet to get the currently available booster, released last fall, then you should wait for the new shot, Azar advised. While it may not match the BA.2.86 subvariant, it should be a good match for the Eris variant, which is currently dominant in the U.S.
In the meantime, people should assess their own risk on an individual basis and take precautions to protect themselves, the experts emphasize. This includes staying up to date with COVID-19 vaccines, testing if you have symptoms, staying home when sick, avoiding contact with sick people, wearing a mask, especially in crowded indoor spaces, and social distancing.
“Some judgment depending on your level of increased risk is really important now,” says Schaffner. "COVID continues to be a nasty virus."