Many Americans are feeling renewed stress about the rising cases of COVID-19 this summer, following numerous peaks and valleys in the now 18-month-long pandemic. But this go around has a decidedly different feel to it. Here are the top five things that make this surge different than the previous:
1.COVID-19 Vaccinations are available
While access was limited during the initial rollout, since April COVID-19 vaccines have been widely available across South Central Pennsylvania and a large percentage of the population is now vaccinated. Across the Commonwealth, over 53 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated, but those percentages are lower in most of our region despite being effective, free and available.
“Getting the vaccine is the most important thing you can do to prevent becoming serious ill from COVID-19,” said Dr. Anthony Aquilina, executive vice president and chief physician officer, WellSpan Health. “It can also help to limit the spread of COVID-19 to your family, co-workers and those around you.”
WellSpan Health recently expanded to nearly 30 locations to receive a shot locally. That information and how to get a shot can be found here.
To date, WellSpan has administered over 375,000 doses of the vaccine and it continues to be effective against all strains of the virus at preventing serious illness.
“With COVID-19 vaccinations proven to reduce hospitalizations, it makes this surge more difficult to stomach as over 95 percent of the patients we’re treating in our hospitals for COVID-19 are not fully vaccinated, and likely could have avoided such care,” explained Dr. Eugene Curley, infectious disease specialist, WellSpan Health. “It’s important to recognize that while breakthrough cases can occur in those that are vaccinated, transmission rates and hospitalization rates from those individuals remain very low.”
Researchers at the Mayo Clinic and Cambridge-based biotech company nference studied the effectiveness of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine against the Delta variant. That data shows that even when a vaccinated individual is infected with the more highly contagious Delta variant, COVID-19 hospitalizations are prevented 85 percent and 91 percent of the time, respectively. According to the CDC, vaccinated individuals that do experience breakthrough cases are also infectious for less overall time than those that are unvaccinated, helping to limit the spread.
2.The Delta variant is more contagious
As variants of COVID-19 continue to evolve, the current concern is that of Delta. First detected in India, this variant is much more contagious and highly transmissible compared to previous strains. Where the first strain had the potential of an infected person to pass the virus onto two people on average, an individual infected with the delta variant has the potential to spread it to as many as six or seven others, according to the CDC.
“It’s one of the most contagious respiratory viruses that we know of and that is why we’re seeing the rapid spread,” explained Dr. Michael Seim, senior vice president and chief quality officer, WellSpan Health. “Masking can help to prevent that transmission, but vaccinations are still the gold standard for those eligible.”
3.Patient seeking care are trending younger
While the average age of those hospitalized for COVID-19 at WellSpan Health over the course of the pandemic has been 66.2 years old, that is quickly trending younger. As a larger percentage of seniors have received their COVID-19 shots compared to younger, the rapid spread of COVID-19 in this surge is impacting individuals in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s, predominantly those that are not vaccinated. While breakthrough cases have occurred in those that are vaccinated, it is the unvaccinated individuals that are requiring a level of care that may lead to hospitalizations and death. You can view the current trends at WellSpan here.
4.Schools & businesses taking varied approach to safety measures
Early in the pandemic, when little was still known about the virus, sweeping public health guidance was advised to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed. You may recall the “slow the curve” advice to prevent a spike in hospitalizations. Now that we know more about treatment methods and with a portion of the population vaccinated, schools and businesses have taken a more nuanced approach to safety measures, including masking or vaccine mandates. Often these mandates fluctuate during surges in cases and can add a layer of confusion as individuals and families navigate the changing landscape with different requirements in different settings.
The added wrinkle is that with Delta being more transmissible, even vaccinated individuals have the chance of spreading it to others who are not, including children, even if they themselves never get seriously ill.
“Regardless of school or business recommendation, we know that masking can help to slow the spread of COVID-19,” said Dr. Mark Goedecker, vice president and chief medical officer for primary care, WellSpan Health. “If you find yourself in a space where you feel social distancing cannot be maintained, it is best to mask up, even if you are fully vaccinated, to help slow the spread.”
5.Pediatric cases are on the rise
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 93,824 child COVID-19 cases were reported between July 29 and August 5, with children representing 15 percent of the weekly reported cases across the country. While the Delta variant is clearly leading to more cases in children, it is unclear whether it is leading to more serious illness. What is also unclear is the long-term effects of a COVID-19 positive diagnosis for children, and for that matter adults. While many have mild to no symptoms at all, long-term data simply does not exist yet to determine those later impacts.