The rapidly evolving coronavirus has started the summer in the US with many infections but relatively few deaths compared to its previous incarnations.
COVID-19 still kills hundreds of Americans every day, but is nowhere near as dangerous as it was last fall and winter.
“It’s going to be a good summer and we deserve this break,” said Ali Mokdad, a professor of health sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle.
With more Americans now protected from serious illness through vaccination and infection, COVID-19 has turned – for the time being at least – into an unpleasant, inconvenient nuisance for many.
“It feels cautiously good now,” said Dr. Dan Kaul, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor. “For the first time I can remember, pretty much since it started, we don’t have (COVID-19) patients in the ICU.”
As the nation marks the fourth of July, the average number of daily deaths from COVID-19 in the United States hovers around 360. Last year, during a similar summer lull, it was about 228 in early July. That remains the lowest threshold for daily deaths in the US since March 2020, when the virus first spread in the US.
But last year during this time there were far fewer cases – less than 20,000 per day. Now it’s about 109,000 — and probably an undercount because home tests aren’t routinely reported.
Today, in the third year of the pandemic, it’s easy to be confused by the mixed picture: repeated infections are becoming more common and a significant proportion of those infected will face the lingering symptoms of long-term COVID-19 .
Yet the great danger of death has diminished for many people.
“And that’s because we’re now at a point where everyone’s immune systems have seen the virus or the vaccine two or three times now,” said Dr. David Dowdy, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Over time, the body learns not to overreact when it sees this virus.”
“What we’re seeing is that, on average, people are getting sick less and less,” Dowdy said.
As many as 8 in 10 people in the US have been infected at least once, according to an influential model.
The death rate from COVID-19 has been a moving target, but has recently fallen within the range of an average flu season, according to data analyzed by Arizona State University health industry researcher Mara Aspinall.
In the beginning, some people said that coronavirus was no more deadly than the flu, “and that wasn’t true for a long time,” Aspinall said. Back then, people had no immunity. Treatments were experimental. Vaccines don’t exist.
Now, Aspinall said, the built-up immunity has lowered the death rate to well into the range of a typical flu season. Over the past decade, the flu death rate has been about 5% to 13% of those hospitalized.
Major differences separate flu from COVID-19: The behavior of the coronavirus continues to surprise health experts and it is still unclear whether it will settle into a flu-like seasonal pattern.
Last summer — when vaccines first became widely available in the US — was followed by the delta wave and then the arrival of omicron, which killed 2,600 Americans a day at its peak last February.
Experts agree that a new variant may emerge that can escape the built-up immunity of the population. And the rapidly spreading omicron subtypes BA.4 and BA.5 may also contribute to a change in mortality rates.
“We thought we understood until these new subvariants came up,” says Dr. Peter Hotez, an infectious disease specialist at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas.
It would be wise, he said, to assume a new variant will hit the country later this summer.
“And then another late fall-winter wave,” Hotez said.
Deaths could rise in many states in the coming weeks, but the US as a whole is likely to see deaths drop slightly, said Nicholas Reich, who collects coronavirus projections for the COVID-19 Forecast Hub in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. .
“We have seen the number of hospital admissions from COVID-19 increase to about 5,000 new admissions per day, from just over 1,000 in early April. But the number of deaths from COVID has only increased slightly over the same period,” said Reich, a professor of biostatistics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Unvaccinated people have a six times higher risk of dying from COVID-19 compared to people with at least one primary series of shots, the CDC estimates based on available data from April.
This summer, consider your own vulnerability and that of those around you, especially in large gatherings, because the virus spreads so quickly, Dowdy said.
“There are still people who are at high risk,” he said.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.