COVID-19 cases are rising in the United States and could worsen in the coming months, federal health officials warned Wednesday as they urged hardest-hit areas to consider reissuing calls for indoor masking.
The rising number of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations puts more of the country under guidelines issued by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that call for masking and other infection precautions .
Currently, increases are concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest. “(But) past increases in infections, in different waves of infection, have demonstrated that this is spreading across the country,” CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a White House briefing with journalists.
For a growing number of areas, “we urge local leaders to encourage the use of prevention strategies like masks in indoor public places and to increase access to testing and treatment,” she said.
However, officials have been cautious about making concrete predictions, saying whether the pandemic worsens will depend on several factors, including how well previous infections protect against new variants.
Last week, White House COVID-19 coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha warned in an interview with The Associated Press that the United States would be increasingly vulnerable to the coronavirus this fall and winter if Congress did not quickly approve new funding for more vaccines and treatments.
Jha warned that a lack of congressional funding to fight the virus could lead to “unnecessary loss of life” in the fall and winter, when the United States runs out of treatments.
He added that the United States was already lagging behind other countries in securing the supply of the next generation of COVID-19 vaccines and said the domestic manufacturing base for home testing was drying up as the demand was declining.
Jha said domestic test makers have started closing lines and laying off workers, and in the coming weeks will start selling equipment and prepare to exit the test production business altogether unless the government American has money to buy more tests, like the hundreds of millions it sent free to requesting households this year.
That would leave the United States dependent on other countries to test supplies, risking shortages during a surge, Jha warned. About 8.5 million households have placed orders for the latest tranche of eight free tests since orders opened on Monday, Jha added.
The pandemic is now 2 and a half years old. And the United States has seen — depending on how you count it — five waves of COVID-19 during that time, with subsequent surges driven by mutated versions of the coronavirus. A fifth wave occurred mainly in December and January, caused by the omicron variant.
The omicron variant spread much more easily than previous versions.
Some experts fear the country is now seeing signs of a sixth wave, driven by an omicron subvariant. On Wednesday, Walensky noted a steady increase in COVID-19 cases over the past five weeks, including a 26% increase nationwide in the past week.
Hospitalizations are also increasing, up 19% in the past week, although they remain well below those of the omicron wave, she said.
In late February, as that wave waned, the CDC released a new set of measures for communities where COVID-19 was loosening its grip, focusing less on positive test results and more on what’s happening in communities. hospitals.
Walensky said more than 32% of the country currently lives in an area with medium or high COVID-19 community levels, including more than 9% at the highest level, where the CDC recommends masks and other efforts. attenuation are used.
Over the past week, an additional 8% of Americans lived in a county with medium or high COVID-19 community levels.
Officials said they were concerned that declining immunity and easing of mitigation measures across the country could contribute to a continued rise in infections and disease across the country. They encouraged people – especially the elderly – to get boosters.
Some health experts say the government should take clearer action.
The CDC’s community-level guidelines are confusing to the public and do not paint a clear picture of the extent of virus transmission in a community, said Dr. Lakshmi Ganapathi, an infectious disease specialist at Harvard University.
When government officials make recommendations but don’t set rules, “it’s ultimately up to each individual to choose the public health that’s right for them. But that’s not what’s effective. If you’re talking about stem hospitalizations and even deaths, all of these interventions work best when people do it collectively,” she said.