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Five questions for COVID experts: How concerned should we be?


COVID-19 hospitalizations have been on the rise for weeks as summer nears its end, but how concerned should you be? SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID, continues to evolve and surprise us. So COVID transmission, hospitalization, and death rates can be difficult to predict.

This news organization turned to the experts for their take on the current circulating virus, asking them to predict if we’ll be masking up again anytime soon, and what this fall and winter might look like, especially now that testing and vaccinations are no longer free of charge.

Question 1: Are you expecting an end-of-summer COVID wave to be substantial?

Eric Topol, MD: “This wave won’t likely be substantial and could be more of a ‘wavelet.’ I’m not thinking that physicians are too concerned,” said Dr. Topol, founder and director of Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, Calif.

Thomas Gut, DO: “It’s always impossible to predict the severity of COVID waves. Although the virus has generally mutated in ways that favor easier transmission and milder illness, there have been a handful of surprising mutations that were more dangerous and deadly than the preceding strain,” said Dr. Gut, associate chair of medicine at Staten Island University Hospital/Northwell Health in New York.

Robert Atmar, MD: “I’ll start with the caveat that prognosticating for SARS-CoV-2 is a bit hazardous as we remain in unknown territory for some aspects of its epidemiology and evolution,” said Dr. Atmar, a professor of infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “It depends on your definition of substantial. We, at least in Houston, are already in the midst of a substantial surge in the burden of infection, at least as monitored through wastewater surveillance. The amount of virus in the wastewater already exceeds the peak level we saw last winter. That said, the increased infection burden has not translated into large increases in hospitalizations for COVID-19. Most persons hospitalized in our hospital are admitted with infection, not for the consequences of infection.”

Stuart Campbell Ray, MD: “It looks like there is a rise in infections, but the proportional rise in hospitalizations from severe cases is lower than in the past, suggesting that folks are protected by the immunity we’ve gained over the past few years through vaccination and prior infections. Of course, we should be thinking about how that applies to each of us – how recently we had a vaccine or COVID-19, and whether we might see more severe infections as immunity wanes,” said Dr. Ray, who is a professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Question 2: Is a return to masks or mask mandates coming this fall or winter?

Dr. Topol: “Mandating masks doesn’t work very well, but we may see wide use again if a descendant of [variant] BA.2.86 takes off.”

Dr. Gut: “It’s difficult to predict if there are any mask mandates returning at any point. Ever since the Omicron strains emerged, COVID has been relatively mild, compared to previous strains, so there probably won’t be any plan to start masking in public unless a more deadly strain appears.”

Dr. Atmar: “I do not think we will see a return to mask mandates this fall or winter for a variety of reasons. The primary one is that I don’t think the public will accept mask mandates. However, I think masking can continue to be an adjunctive measure to enhance protection from infection, along with booster vaccination.”

Dr. Ray: “Some people will choose to wear masks during a surge, particularly in situations like commuting where they don’t interfere with what they’re doing. They will wear masks particularly if they want to avoid infection due to concerns about others they care about, disruption of work or travel plans, or concerns about long-term consequences of repeated COVID-19.”


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