The Perfect Enemy | US sees little sign of post-Christmas COVID bump; XBB.1.5 continues rise
October 25, 2023

US sees little sign of post-Christmas COVID bump; XBB.1.5 continues rise

Also, separate reports from the WHO and Europe show declines in cases, with countries and regions reflecting differences in subvariant proportions.

Most US COVID-19 markers declined last week, but health officials are closely watching the continued steady rise of the Omicron XBB.1.5 subvariant, which is already dominant in much of the East and rising in all regions of the country.

In its pandemic updates today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also unveiled two new dashboards for tracking hospitalizations and emergency department (ED) visits for three respiratory diseases: COVID-19, flu, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

All regions see rise in XBB.1.5

The CDC said in its weekly overview that the 7-day average for new daily cases is 47,459, down nearly 24% compared to a week ago. For the week ending Jan 16, the virus was hospitalizing just over 5,000 new patients each day, down 16.4% from the previous week. However, the CDC’s new respiratory virus hospitalization tracker, called RESP-NET, suggests that COVID-19 hospitalizations are likely increasing as of Dec 31 among adults ages 65 and older.

The 7-day average of new fatalities suggests that 565 people are dying every day from their infections, down 6.1% from the week before. Other tracking metrics such as test positivity, wastewater sampling, and community levels also show declines.

In its variant update today, the CDC estimated the more transmissible and immune-evasive XBB.1.5 Omicron subvariant makes up nearly 50% of sequences, up from 43% the previous week. The subvariant is dominant in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states and makes up a growing proportion of subvariants in all other regions. Levels of other subvariants are declining.

The CDC said the two new dashboards tracking hospitalizations and ED visits are designed to help public health officials monitor health events and the strain on the health system. It also said the tools can help people decide how to protect themselves, such as masking in public when respiratory virus trends are rising. For example, RESP-NET can help visualize virus circulation and estimate disease burden.

Meanwhile, the new national emergency department dashboard is useful as an early warning system for notable increases or outbreaks, the CDC said. Both dashboards are updated weekly.

Global COVID cases down, but deaths up

In its weekly pandemic update yesterday, the World Health Organization (WHO) said cases dropped 7% last week compared to the previous 28 days, but it urged caution in interpreting trends owing to incomplete reporting and holiday-related delays. Cases decline or remained stable in all world regions.

Deaths, however, were up 20%, reflecting rises in three regions: the Western Pacific, the Americas, and the Eastern Mediterranean. The United States and Japan reported the most deaths. The WHO said the increase doesn’t include the nearly 60,000 deaths reported from China over the past month, because it is waiting for China to provide a breakdown by province.

In its variant update, the WHO said BA.5 is still dominant at the global level, making up 70.5% of sequences. It added that BA.2 and its descendant lineages are increasing, while recombinants show a stable pattern.

This highlights the importance of booster doses of COVID-19 vaccines, particularly among groups vulnerable to severe illness.

In the European region, the overall epidemiologic picture is improving after markers rose in December, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said in its weekly update, which also notes that the BQ.1 subvariant makes up nearly half of cases. XBB subvariant levels, including XBB.1.5, are still in the single digits.

The ECDC also warned about lingering holiday effects on data gathering. And it said though the COVID situation appears to be improving, just over 1,600 deaths were reported in the region in the second week of January, with the biggest impact in older age-groups.

“This highlights the importance of booster doses of COVID-19 vaccines, particularly among groups vulnerable to severe illness,” the ECDC said.