Numerous viruses that were seemingly dormant during the pandemic are returning in new and atypical ways, CNBC reported June 10.
Flu, respiratory syncytial virus, adenovirus, tuberculosis and monkeypox are among the viruses that have recently surged or exhibited unusual behaviors.
The U.S. saw extremely mild flu seasons in 2020-21 and 2021-22, likely due to high rates of mask-wearing, social distancing and other COVID-19 prevention measures. However, flu cases started to rise this February and continued to climb through the spring as more public health measures receded.
“We’ve never seen a flu season in the U.S. extend into June,” Scott Roberts, MD, associate medical director for infection prevention at Yale New Haven (Conn.) Hospital, told CNBC. “COVID has clearly had a very big impact on that. Now that people have unmasked [and] places are opening up, we’re seeing viruses behave in very odd ways that they weren’t before.”
Washington state is also reporting its most severe tuberculosis outbreak in 20 years, while the world is grappling with a monkeypox outbreak that’s affected more than 1,000 people.
These viruses, suppressed during the pandemic, now have more opportunities to spread as people resume daily life, become more social and travel more. Society, as a whole, also has less immunity against the viruses after two years of reduced exposure to them, according to the report.
The pandemic has also boosted surveillance efforts and public interest in other outbreaks, experts say.
“COVID has raised the profile of public health matters so that we are perhaps paying more attention to these events when they occur,” Jennifer Horney, PhD, professor of epidemiology at the University of Delaware in Newark, told CNBC.
A friend called me for medical advice two weeks ago. He’s single, in his thirties and generally healthy, but he’d developed a dry cough with mild congestion. After a self-administered Covid-19 test turned up negative results, he remained suspicious he could be infected.
He was set to fly west in a couple of days for a conference and dreaded the thought of infecting other passengers. I recommended a PCR test if he wanted to be more certain. When the lab results came back positive, he spent the next five days at home alone (per CDC guidance).
If you were in his shoes, chances are you, too, would make a reasonable effort to avoid infecting others. In the near future, that won’t be the case.
Americans are playing it safe—for now
A whopping 91% of Americans no longer consider Covid-19 a “serious crisis.” Social distancing has reached a low point as public-health restrictions continue to ease up.
Yet, there’s still one aspect of the pandemic Americans are taking very seriously.
As a society, we still expect people who test positive for Covid-19 to stay home and minimize contact with others. As a result of these expectations, 4 in 10 workers (including 6 in 10 low-income employees) have missed work in 2022. Overall, the nation’s No. 1 concern related to Omicron is “spreading the virus to people who are at higher risk of serious illness.”
Most Americans are eager to move on from the pandemic, but those who are sick continue to avoid actions that may potentially spread the virus.
Call it what you will—group think, peer pressure or the fear of violating cultural taboos—people don’t want to put others in harm’s way. That’s true, according to polls, regardless of one’s party affiliation or vaccination status.
What’s immoral today will be appropriate tomorrow
Don’t get used to these polite and socially conscious behaviors. All of it is about to change in the not-distant future. Let me paint a picture of tomorrow’s new normal:
A factory worker tests positive over the weekend for Covid-19 and comes to work on Monday without a mask, informing no one of his infection.
A vacationer with mild Covid-19 symptoms refuses to postpone her spa weekend, availing herself of massages, facials and group yoga classes.
A couple plans an indoor wedding for 200-plus, knowing the odds are likely that dozens of people will get infected and that some of those guests will be elderly and immunosuppressed.
These actions, which seem inappropriate and immoral now, will become typical. It’s not that people will suddenly become less empathetic or more callous. They’ll simply be adjusting to new social mores, brought about by a unique viral strain and an inevitable evolution in American culture.
A crash course in a unique virus
To understand why people will behave in ways that seem so unacceptable today, you must understand how the Omicron variant spreads compared to other viruses.
“A single case could give rise to six cases after four days, 36 cases after eight days, and 216 cases after 12 days,” according to a report in Scientific American. As a result, researchers predict that 100 million Americans will become infected with Omicron this year alone—via new infections, reinfections and vaccination breakthroughs.
In addition to Omicron’s high transmissibility, the virus is also season-less. Whereas influenza arrives each winter and exits in the spring, Americans will continue to experience high levels of Covid-19 infection year-round—at least for the foreseeable future.
With its 60-plus mutations, immense transmissibility and lack of seasonality, Omicron is an exceptional virus: one that will infect not only our respiratory systems but also our culture.
Over time, Omicron’s unique characteristics will drive Americans to deny and ignore the risks of infection. In the near future, they’ll make decisions and take actions that they’d presently deem wrong.
A culture shock is coming
Culture—which comprises the shared values, norms and beliefs of a group of people—doesn’t change because someone decides it should. It evolves because circumstances change.
The pandemic has no doubt been a culture-changing event and, as the circumstances of Covid-19 have changed, so too have our underlying values, beliefs and behaviors.
If 100 million Americans (one-third of the population) were to become infected with Omicron this year, we can expect that everyone will know someone with the disease. And when dozens of our friends or colleagues say they’ve had it, we will begin to see transmission as inevitable. And since, statistically, most Americans won’t die from Omicron, people will see infection as relatively harmless and they’ll be willing to drop their guard.
We’ll see more and more people going to work even when they’re infected. We’ll see more people on trains and planes, coughing and congested, having never taken a Covid-19 test. And we’ll see large, indoor celebrations taking place without any added safety measures, despite the risks to the most vulnerable attendees.
Amid these changes, health officials will continue to urge caution, just as they have for more than two years. But it won’t make a difference. Culture eats science for breakfast. Americans will increasingly follow the herd and stop heeding public-safety warnings.
The process of change has begun
Cultural shifts happen in steps. First, a few people break the rules and then others follow.
Recall my friend, the one who took two tests out of an abundance of caution. Next time, perhaps he’ll decide he’d rather not miss the conference. Perhaps when he returns home, he will tell his friends that he felt sick the whole trip. Perhaps they’ll ask, “Do you think you might have had Covid?” And perhaps he will reply: “What difference would it have made? I’m fully vaccinated and boosted.”
And so, it will go. The next time someone in his social circle feels under the weather, he or she won’t even bother to do the first test.
This change process has already begun. Take the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, for example. Last year, the event was cancelled. This year, guests had to show proof of vaccination or a negative same-day test. However, that rule didn’t apply to staff at the hotel who worked the event. Unsurprisingly, several high-profile attendees got Covid-19 but, so far, no reports of anyone being hospitalized. A year from now, assuming no major mutations cause the virus to become more lethal, we can expect all restrictions will be dropped.
Culture dictates how people behave. It influences their thoughts and actions. It alters their values and beliefs. The unique characteristics of Omicron will lead people to ignore the harm it inflicts. They won’t act with malicious intent. They’ll just be oblivious to the consequences of their actions. That’s how culture works.
But officials caution that people should not presume they have protection against the virus going forward.
Before omicron, one-third of Americans had been infected with the coronavirus, but by the end of February, that rate had climbed to nearly 60 percent — including about 75 percent of kids and 60 percent of people age 18 to 49, according to federal health data released Tuesday.
The data from blood tests offers the first evidence that over half the U.S. population, or 189 million people have been infected at least once since the pandemic began — double the number reflected in official case counts. Officials cautioned, however, that the data, in a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, does not indicate people have protection against the virus going forward, especially against increasingly transmissible variants.
“We continue to recommend that everyone be up to date on their vaccinations, get your primary series and booster, when eligible,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during a media briefing.
Kristie Clarke, the CDC official who authored the report, said by February, “evidence of previous COVID-19 infections substantially increased among every age group, likely reflecting the increase in cases we noted as omicron surged in this country.”
Clarke said the greatest increases took place in those with the lowest levels of vaccination, noting that older adults were more likely to be fully vaccinated.
The largest increases were in children and teenagers through age 17 — about 75 percent of them had been infected by February, based on blood samples that look at antibodies developed in response to a coronavirus infection but not in response to vaccination. That’s about 58 million children.
The blood test data suggests 189 million Americans had covid-19 by end of February, well over double the 80 million cases shown by The Washington Post case tracker, which is based on state data of confirmed infections. Clarke said that’s because the blood tests captures asymptomatic cases and others that were never confirmed on coronavirus tests.
With the omicron surge, officials had expected there would be more infections. “But I didn’t expect the increase to be quite this much,” Clarke added.
Separately, CDC is about to publish another study that estimates three infections for every reported case, she said.
A surge in coronavirus infections in Western Europe has experts and health authorities on alert for another wave of the pandemic in the United States, even as most of the country has done away with restrictions after a sharp decline in cases.
Infectious-disease experts are closely watching the subvariant of omicron known as BA.2, which appears to be more transmissible than the original strain, BA.1, and is fueling the outbreak overseas.
In all, about a dozen nations are seeing spikes in coronavirus infections caused by BA.2, a cousin of the BA.1 form of the virus that tore through the United States over the past three months.
In the past two years, a widespread outbreak like the one now being seen in Europe has been followed by a similar surge in the United States some weeks later. Many, but not all, experts interviewed for this story predicted that is likely to happen. China and Hong Kong, on the other hand, are experiencing rapid and severe outbreaks, but the strict “zero covid” policies they have enforced make them less similar to the United States than Western Europe.
A number of variables — including relaxed precautions against viral transmission, vaccination rates, the availability of antiviral medications and natural immunity acquired by previous infection — may affect the course of any surge in the United States, experts said.
Most importantly, it is unclear at this point how many people will become severely ill, stressing hospitals and the health-care system as BA.1 did.
Another surge also may test the public’s appetite for returning to widespread mask-wearing, mandates and other measures that many have eagerly abandoned as the latest surge fades and spring approaches, experts said.
“It’s picking up steam. It’s across at least 12 countries … from Finland to Greece,” said Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in San Diego, who recently posted charts of the outbreak on Twitter. “There’s no question there’s a significant wave there.”
Topol noted that hospitalizations for covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, are rising in some places as well, despite the superior vaccination rates of many Western European countries.
At a briefing Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said about 35,000 cases of BA.2 have been reported in the United States to date. But she offered confidence that “the tools we have — including mRNA vaccines, therapeutics and tests — are all effective tools against the virus. And we know because it’s been in the country.”
Kristen Nordlund, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an email Tuesday that “although the BA.2 variant has increased in the United States over the past several weeks, it is not the dominant variant, and we are not seeing an increase in the severity of disease.”
The seven-day average of cases in the United States fell 17.9 percent in the past week, according to data tracked by The Washington Post, while the number of deaths dropped 17.2 percent and hospitalizations declined 23.2 percent.
Predicting the future course of the virus has proved difficult throughout the pandemic, and the current circumstances in Europe elicited a range of opinions from people who have closely tracked the pathogen and the disease it causes.
In the United States, just 65.3 percent of the population, 216.8 million people, are fully vaccinated, and only 96.1 million have received a booster shot, according to data tracked by The Post. In Germany, nearly 76 percent are fully vaccinated, according to the Johns Hopkins data, and the United Kingdom has fully vaccinated 73.6 percent.
That lower vaccination rate is very likely to matter as BA.2 spreads further in the United States, especially in regions where it is significantly lower than the national rate, several experts said. And even for people who are fully vaccinated and have received a booster shot, research data is showing that immunity to the virus fades over time. Vaccine-makers Pfizer and BioNTech asked the Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday for emergency authorization to offer a fourth shot to people 65 and older.
“Any place you have relatively lower vaccination rates, especially among the elderly, is where you’re going to see a bump in hospitalizations and deaths from this,” said Céline Gounder, an infectious-diseases physician and editor at large for public health at Kaiser Health News.
Similarly, as the public sheds masks — every state has dropped its mask mandate or announced plans to do so — another layer of protection is disappearing, several people tracking the situation said.
“Why wouldn’t it come here? Are we vaccinated enough? I don’t know,” said Kimberly Prather, a professor of atmospheric chemistry and an expert on aerosol transmission at the University of California at San Diego.
“So I’m wearing my mask still. … I am the only person indoors, and people look at me funny, and I don’t care.”
Yet BA.2 appears to be spreading more slowly in the United States than it has overseas, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Debbie Dowell, chief medical officer for the CDC’s covid-19 response, said in a briefing Saturday for clinicians sponsored by the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
“The speculation I’ve seen is that it may extend the curve going down, case rates from omicron, but is unlikely to cause another surge that we saw initially with omicron,” Dowell said.
One reason for that may be the immunity that millions of people acquired recently when they were infected with the BA.1 variant, which generally caused less-severe illness than previous variants. Yet no one really knows whether infection with BA.1 offers protection from BA.2.
“That’s the question,” said Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. “Better yet, how long does it provide protection?”
Topol said the United States needs to improve its vaccination and booster rates immediately to protect more of the population against any coming surge.
“We have got to get the United States protected better. We have an abundance of these shots. We have to get them into people,” he said.
Biden administration officials said that whatever the further spread of BA.2 brings to the United States, the next critical step is to provide the $15.6 billion in emergency funding that Congress stripped from a deal to fund the government last week. That money was slated to pay for coronavirus tests, more vaccines and antiviral medications.
“That means that some programs, if we don’t get funding, could abruptly end or need to be pared back, Psaki said at Monday’s briefing. “And that could impact how we are able to respond to any variant.”
In May 2020, a 33-year-old mother of three in North Carolina started experiencing symptoms of COVID-19. Four days later, a different set of symptoms set in. She stopped sleeping well and started having paranoid delusions that people were tracking her through her cell phone—culminating in a frantic scene at a fast-food restaurant, in which she tried to pass her children through the drive-through window, where they’d be safe from the phones and other dangers.
A restaurant employee called 911, and emergency medical services workers arrived, gathered up the family, and hurried to the nearby emergency department of the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, where the mother was quickly attended to by physicians. “She was physically in the room, but she wasn’t making consistent eye contact,” says Dr. Colin Smith, who is now chief resident of the hospital’s internal medicine psychiatry program but was a second-year resident when he took care of the patient. “She was not really engaging all that much. Her thought processes were disorganized.”
Despite that, the patient acknowledged two things to Smith and the other doctors: She knew her behavior was out of character, and the changes all happened quickly after she was diagnosed with COVID-19.
There’s growing evidence that COVID-19 and new psychotic episodes are connected. The North Carolina case, reported in the British Medical Journal in August 2020, joins a slew of case reports published in medical journals during the pandemic that detail psychotic episodes following a COVID-19 diagnosis. In the July 2020 issue of BJPsyh Open, researchers reported that a 55-year old woman in the U.K., with no history of mental illness, arrived at a hospital days after recovering from a severe case of COVID-19 with delusions and hallucinations, convinced that the nurses were devils in disguise and that monkeys were jumping out of the doctors’ medical bags. In April 2021, other researchers wrote in BMJ Case Reports of a middle-aged British man, also with no prior mental health disorders, who had appeared at a London hospital experiencing auditory and visual hallucinations and banging his head against walls until he bruised his skin. (Weeks before, he had recovered from a bout with COVID-19 that had landed him in the intensive care unit.) In yet another case, published in the Journal of Psychiatric Practice in March 2021, a 57-year-old-man turned up at Columbia University’s New York Presbyterian Hospital insisting that his wife was poisoning him, that cameras had been planted throughout his apartment, and that the patients in the hospital’s emergency department were being secretly murdered.
“The situation was strikingly similar to one we’d expect from someone who had a schizophrenia spectrum illness,” says Dr. Aaron Slan, now a fourth-year psychiatry resident at Columbia University, who cared for the patient and co-authored the report. But this patient too had no history of mental health disorders and was too old for a first-onset case of schizophrenia, which typically occurs between ages 20 and 30 for men, Slan notes. What the patient did have, as a test in the hospital revealed, was COVID-19.
COVID-19-related psychotic breaks are rare—though researchers say that it’s too early to say exactly how rare—and plenty of experts believe that the connection between the two conditions, if any, is not causal. In a review published in 2021 in Neurological Letters, a group of researchers in the U.K. casts doubt on the emerging body of work on the COVID-19-psychosis link as “beset by both small sample size, and inadequate attention to potential confounding factors,” such as heightened stress, substance abuse, and socioeconomic hardship.
Still, researchers are investigating the link. One U.K. study published in the Lancet in October 2020 found that of 153 people who were diagnosed with COVID-19 early in the pandemic, 10 suffered new-onset psychotic episodes following their COVID-19 diagnosis, and seven exhibited the onset of psychiatric disorders, including catatonia and mania.
A study published last August in General Hospital Psychiatry took a broad view of the phenomenon, analyzing 40 scientific articles, which included 48 adults from 17 different countries who suffered psychotic episodes associated with COVID-19 infection, and tried to find commonalities among them. As with the Neurological Letters paper, the authors of this study found plenty of other variables that might muddy the link between COVID-19 and psychosis—like stress, substance use, and medications—but the relationship still held.
“We see post-infectious neuroinflammatory disorders associated with a variety of different viral illnesses,” says Dr. Samuel Pleasure, a neurology professor at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). “Normally we see it in very small numbers, but here we have [COVID-19] infecting tens of millions of people at the same time.” Even rare cases of psychiatric conditions will start to show themselves when the sample group of infected people is so large.
There are more questions than answers at this point. It’s still unclear whether the severity of COVID-19 symptoms plays any role in the likelihood of a psychotic break. “There seem to be clearly cases of neuropsychiatric consequences of COVID that are linked to cases that are not severe,” Pleasure says. “I believe that the quality of the studies at this point are so preliminary, and the ability to really capture these patients to study is really at early stages, so it’s hard to be definitive.” Similarly, Pleasure says, it’s impossible to say whether people suffering from Long COVID—symptoms that last for months after the infection is over—are more susceptible to psychotic symptoms.
There are multiple possible mechanisms at work, any one of which—or a combination—could be contributing to the neuropsychiatric symptoms associated with COVID-19. The most straightforward would be direct infection of brain tissue itself, according to Pleasure. If that’s so, the number of COVID-19 patients who suffer loss of the sense of taste and smell would suggest that the brain’s olfactory bulb may be struck by the virus first.
“There are documented cases where people have done MRIs early in the [COVID-19 disease] process and have seen some local inflammation in the olfactory bulb,” Pleasure says. “That has contributed further to the idea that maybe that’s the portal of entry.” Once that portal has been breached, the brain at large could be exposed.
Just how the COVID-19 infection reaches the brain is unclear, but Pleasure and his colleague Dr. Michael Wilson, associate professor of neurology at UCSF, conducted lumbar punctures of three teens with COVID-19 who had developed neuropsychiatric symptoms to examine their cerebrospinal fluid. In two cases, they found antibodies in the fluid that target neural antigens. That presented an apparent puzzle: the patients had SARS-CoV-2; if anything, they should be exhibiting antibodies to the virus, not to their own neural tissue. But Pleasure cites one study he conducted with a group from Yale University showing that antibodies specific to the coronavirus spike protein could also cross-react with nerve cells, attacking them as well.
“There was molecular mimicry between the spike protein and a neural antigen,” he says. “One of the main hypotheses is that if there’s an antibody that targets the virus, then, out of bad luck, you also see damage to the host.” In other words, he says, you start with an immune response adaptive to fighting the virus, and that turns into an autoimmune response.
That’s just one theory. There are still other routes by which COVID-19 can affect the brain. Upper respiratory infections can, on occasion, cause the immune system to go awry and develop antibodies against parts of the brain known as NMDA (N-methyl-D-aspartate) receptors, which are the main excitatory receptors that react to neurotransmitters. A broad attack on receptors spread throughout the brain can lead to quick and severe symptoms, says Dr. Mudasir Firdosi, a Consultant Psychiatrist at the Kent and Medway NHS and Social Care Partnership Trust and a co-author of the 2021 BMJ paper.
“[NMDA involvement] presents a very, very florid way to be psychotic,” Firdosi says. Slan agrees: “When someone has an abrupt onset of psychosis following a viral illness, NMDA antibodies are frequently invoked,” he says.
Yet another suspect in the development of neuropsychiatric symptoms is the so-called cytokine storm that often follows infection with SARS-CoV-2. Cytokines are proteins critical for cell signaling that are produced by the immune system and give rise to inflammation that in turn can fight infection. But if cytokine production spins out of control, extreme body-wide inflammation can follow, and brain tissue would not be spared the impact.
“The neurons themselves are not being invaded,” says Slan, “but what happens is that the systemic inflammatory response causes both stress and changes in signaling throughout the body. That includes the brain, and can precipitate these types of [psychotic] symptoms.”
One other bit of evidence that COVID-19 is linked to psychotic breaks comes not from the current scientific literature, but from history. Following the influenza pandemic of 1918 and 1919, there was a spike in what was called encephalitis lethargica, which was essentially a form of early-onset Parkinson’s disease that often didn’t appear for a number of years after the infection—but left patients in what was effectively a state of catatonia.
“That flu virus caused a post-infection inflammation that killed brain cells that in turn led to the Parkinson’s,” says Pleasure. The book and movie Awakenings, about patients who temporarily recovered consciousness and lucidity after treatment with l-dopa—a precursor of the neurotransmitter dopamine—was based on cases of people suffering from that form of Parkinson’s.
The good news is that unlike more chronic forms of psychosis, most cases seemingly related to COVID-19 do not appear to last. The symptoms can respond to antipsychotic medications like Risperdal (risperidone) and Zyprexa (olanzapine), say Smith and Slan. Intravenous immunoglobulin infusions—which reduce the overall load of abnormal cells and inflammatory agents—and steroids, which also reduce inflammation, can be effective as well.
By no means is the case for virus-triggered psychosis closed. Even Slan, who has first-hand experience treating a patient suffering from a seemingly virus-linked psychotic break believes that there is more work to be done—and acknowledges the doubts of the researchers who believe other psychological factors might be at play.
“Given the stress of COVID,” he says, “given the concerns about mortality, seclusion, all of these things represent huge psychosocial stressors, and they have the potential to precipitate oftentimes short-lived psychotic symptoms.”
Of course, even a transitory psychosis is still a psychosis—something no one wants to experience even fleetingly. That puts a premium on avoiding infection in the first place. “The best way to treat COVID-19 and the risk of psychosis is to prevent it,” says Smith. “Even if neurological complications are rare, getting vaccinated remains the smartest choice.”
The website for the group Physicians for Informed Consent (PIC) reads like an apolitical, educational resource that provides information on vaccines and why they shouldn’t be government-mandated. Its mission is “that doctors and the public are able to evaluate the data on infectious diseases and vaccines objectively, and voluntarily engage in informed decision-making about vaccination.”
The group’s accompanying social media accounts, however, tell a different story. On PIC’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn feeds, you’ll find post after post about reasons to be scared of vaccines – especially for children – often highlighting selective portions of scientific research that contain vaccination risks.
Who’s Behind PIC?
The group was founded in 2015 after California passed a law that prohibited the use of personal belief exemptions from vaccinations required for children to attend any public or private school in the state.
Three years later, the number of waivers issued by doctors to parents seeking medical exemptions for their children tripled. As a result, another law was passed in 2019, cracking down on the inappropriate use of medical exemptions.
The group’s founder, Shira Miller, MD, is a concierge integrative medicine doctor based in Los Angeles, specializing in menopausal care. On her own Twitter profile, she describes herself as “Facebook’s Most Popular Menopause Doctor.”
Miller earned her medical degree in 2002 from Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel, and has reportedly been working as a concierge physician since 2010.
PIC’s leadership team also includes 20 physicians from a wide range of specialties, most of whom, like Miller, don’t specialize in infectious diseases.
Among its leaders is Paul Thomas, MD, an Oregon-based pediatrician. Thomas, who is listed as one of PIC’s founding directors, was issued an emergency suspension order of his medical license in 2021 by the state medical board, in which they cited at least eight cases of alleged patient harm. In line with PIC’s philosophy, Thomas maintains that he isn’t “anti-vax” – he’s pro-informed-consent.
Also on the team is Jane Orient, MD, internist and executive director of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS), a group that also opposes vaccine mandates. Orient received her medical degree from Columbia University and currently practices in Arizona. In 2020, the AAPS sued the federal government for withholding its stockpile of hydroxychloroquine from COVID patients, despite research showing that the drug is ineffective. The complaint was dismissed in September 2021.
Doug Mackenzie, MD, a plastic surgeon who graduated from Johns Hopkins University of Medicine, is PIC’s treasurer. He has previously identified himself as an “ex-vaxxer” rather than an anti-vaxxer when speaking on a panel in 2019.
The only RN on the team is Tawny Buettner. After California mandated vaccinations for healthcare workers, Buettner organized a protest outside of her place of work, Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego; she later sued the hospital after she was dismissed from her job. According to the complaint, Buettner and the 36 other plaintiffs alleged that their requests for religious exemptions from the COVID-19 vaccine were all denied.
Kenneth Stoller, MD, also listed on the leadership team, graduated from the American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine and completed pediatric residency training at the University of California Los Angeles. Stoller was disciplined in 2019 for doling out medical exemptions to children without adequate evidence. According to state records, his license in California has since been revoked; he currently holds a medical license in New Mexico.
The most notable physician groups accused of spreading COVID-19 misinformation since the vaccine rollout have been affiliated with right-wing media, if not overtly proclaiming conservative, anti-vaccination beliefs.
For example,America’s Frontline Doctors, a group notorious for its support of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19, has made its values well-known. The group’s founder, Simone Gold, MD, JD, was arrested for participating in the Jan. 6 capitol riot and has openly opposed mask-wearing. Similarly, physician leaders of theFront Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance, known for promoting the use of ivermectin to treat COVID-19, tout their appearances on the ultra-conservative Newsmax on the website’s homepage.
PIC wants to be different. The group’s focus, according to its general counsel Greg Glaser, JD, of Copperopolis, California, is on the “authoritative citations that show, or calculate, the risks [of vaccines] to the public,” he told MedPage Today.
“We are pro-informed consent, pro-ethics, pro-health. PIC is not anti-vaccine, and PIC is not pro-vaccine – PIC is neutral,” Glaser said on behalf of the group.
In August 2021, Glaser submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court PIC’s behalf, arguing against the implementation of vaccine mandates. The document claims that “government statements confirm there is no evidence that COVID-19 vaccines prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19,” ignoring the breadth of existing literature that says otherwise.
As COVID-19 cases fall and hospitals tiptoe out from yet another surge, the nation is left collectively asking one major question: What comes next?
By now, health experts have made it clear COVID-19 will always be around in some capacity but have stressed uncertainty about the potential scope and severity of future surges.
While difficult to predict what the pandemic’s next act could look like, several potential scenarios have emerged in recent months.
Below are four possible paths the pandemic could take in the future, as outlined by physicians, epidemiologists and global health officials:
1. Delta rebound. Delta has seemingly fallen out of the collective pandemic lingo amid omicron’s dominance in recent months, though there is still a chance delta — thought to be the deadliest strain thus far — makes a comeback.
In a Jan. 24 op-ed for The Washington Post, Ashish Jha, MD, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health in Providence, R.I., said “It is possible, though unlikely, that the delta variant returns and co-circulates with omicron in different populations, contributing to ongoing infections and hospitalizations.”
It’s important to note that delta is still dominant in some parts of the world, health experts toldThe Atlantic, adding that while unlikely, there is a chance it could morph into something that catches up with omicron, allowing the two to tag-team — a dangerous combination given delta’s brutality and omicron’s transmissibility.
2. COVID-19 may become a seasonal virus. Dr. Jha said this scenario is likely, whether delta makes a comeback or not.
“That means we are likely to see surges in Southern states this summer (as people there spend more time indoors) and in Northern states next fall and winter as the weather turns cold again,” he wrote in a Jan. 24 op-ed for The Washington Post.
Emerging evidence suggests COVID-19 may be a seasonal disease, though the research is still preliminary. A July 2021 study from the University of Pittsburgh projected a seasonal COVID-19 pattern in North America with three repeating waves: one starting in New England in the spring, the second starting in the South in the summer, and the third kicking off in the Dakotas in the fall. Based on these findings, researchers predicted the U.S. would see a summer 2021 wave in the South and a fall 2021 wave in North-Central states, which is similar to what happened with the delta and omicron surges. As of November 2021, the study had not been peer reviewed.
3. A new variant emerges. If there’s one thing on this list that’s near certain, it’s that there will be new variants in the future. Global health officials have said they expect future variants to be even more transmissible than omicron.
“Omicron will not be the last variant that you will hear us talking about,” Maria Van Kerkhove, PhD, the World Health Organization’s technical lead on COVID-19, said Jan. 25. “The next variant of concern will be more fit, and what we mean by that is it will be more transmissible, because it will have to overtake what is currently circulating.”
Health officials aren’t so much concerned about the emergence of new variants themselves but whether they will cause more or less disease severity. WHO officials have warned against assuming the virus will become milder as it continues to mutate.
“There is no guarantee of that,” Dr. Van Kerkhove said. “We hope that is the case, but there is no guarantee of that and we can’t bank on it,” she added, emphasizing the importance of interventions such as ramping up global vaccination coverage to prevent the emergence of new variants.
Health experts are also concerned white-tailed deer may become a reservoir for the virus to mutate and spread to other animals or back to humans in the form of a new variant.
“This is a top concern right now for the United States,” said Casey Barton Behravesh, who directs the CDC’s One Health Office, which focuses on connections among human, animal and environmental health. “If deer were to become established as a North American wildlife reservoir — and we do think they’re at risk of that — there are real concerns for the health of other wildlife species, livestock, pets and even people,” she told The New York Times.
Preliminary findings recently found white-tailed deer on New York’s Staten Island infected with omicron, the first time the strain has been detected in wild animals in the U.S. Scientists are still exploring a number of questions regarding the virus’s spread among deer, such as how they contract the virus, how the pathogen might mutate inside the host, and whether deer could pass the virus back to humans.
4. The omicron subvariant may spread globally, prolonging the current COVID-19 surge in some parts of the world.
Research shows BA.2 is more transmissible than BA.1, the original omicron strain, though there is no evidence to suggest the subvariant causes more severe illness. The WHO said it expects cases of the omicron subvariant to increase globally due to its growth advantage over BA.1.
“We expect to see BA.2 increasing in detection around the world,” Dr. Kerkhove said during a Feb. 8 media briefing.
In late January, Nathan Grubaugh, PhD, an epidemiologist at the Yale University School of Public Health in New Haven, Conn., toldThe New York Times he was “fairly certain” the subvariant will become dominant in the U.S. but is unclear on “what that would mean for the pandemic.”
The BA.2 variant could spur a new surge, but it’s more likely that U.S. cases will continue to decrease, according to Dr. Grubaugh. If anything, the variant may simply slow the decline.
Overall, most experts told the Times that BA.2’s presence would not significantly alter the course of the pandemic, and so far, data backs this up. COVID-19 cases have been falling nationwide since peaking in mid-January, and modeling from Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Clinic predicts this trend will continue over the next 14 days.
The weekly number of BA.2 sequences identified in the U.S. has also fallen since mid-January, according to a Feb. 11 U.K. Health Security Agency’s report. The U.S. confirmed 191 BA.2 sequences in the week of Jan. 17, which fell to 116 in the week of Jan. 24. In the week of Jan. 31, just four sequences were confirmed, according to supplemental data from the report.
The U.S. may see an end to all pandemic restrictions, including mandatory mask-wearing, in the coming months, Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the Financial Times Feb. 8.
He said he hopes that the end to these restrictions will come soon and explained that the response to the pandemic going forward will be concentrated at a local level.
“As we get out of the full-blown pandemic phase of COVID-19, which we are certainly heading out of, these decisions will increasingly be made on a local level rather than centrally decided or mandated. There will also be more people making their own decisions on how they want to deal with the virus,” he told the FT.
The National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases is preparing for the next pandemic by monitoring viruses that are known to cause severe illness.
Hospitals across the U.S. are feeling the wrath of the omicron variant and getting thrown into disarray that is different from earlier COVID-19 surges.
This time, they are dealing with serious staff shortages because so many health care workers are getting sick with the fast-spreading variant. People are showing up at emergency rooms in large numbers in hopes of getting tested for COVID-19, putting more strain on the system. And a surprising share of patients — two-thirds in some places — are testing positive while in the hospital for other reasons.
At the same time, hospitals say the patients aren’t as sick as those who came in during the last surge. Intensive care units aren’t as full, and ventilators aren’t needed as much as they were before.
The pressures are nevertheless prompting hospitals to scale back non-emergency surgeries and close wards, while National Guard troops have been sent in in several states to help at medical centers and testing sites.
Nearly two years into the pandemic, frustration and exhaustion are running high among health care workers.
“This is getting very tiring, and I’m being very polite in saying that,” said Dr. Robert Glasgow of University of Utah Health, which has hundreds of workers out sick or in isolation.
About 85,000 Americans are in the hospital with COVID-19, just short of the delta-surge peak of about 94,000 in early September, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The all-time high during the pandemic was about 125,000 in January of last year.
But the hospitalization numbers do not tell the whole story. Some cases in the official count involve COVID-19 infections that weren’t what put the patients in the hospital in the first place.
Dr. Fritz François, chief of hospital operations at NYU Langone Health in New York City, said about 65% of patients admitted to that system with COVID-19 recently were primarily hospitalized for something else and were incidentally found to have the virus.
At two large Seattle hospitals over the past two weeks, three-quarters of the 64 patients testing positive for the coronavirus were admitted with a primary diagnosis other than COVID-19.
Joanne Spetz, associate director of research at the Healthforce Center at the University of California, San Francisco, said the rising number of cases like that is both good and bad.
The lack of symptoms shows vaccines, boosters and natural immunity from prior infections are working, she said. The bad news is that the numbers mean the coronavirus is spreading rapidly, and some percentage of those people will wind up needing hospitalization.
This week, 36% of California hospitals reported critical staffing shortages. And 40% are expecting such shortages.
Some hospitals are reporting as much as one quarter of their staff out for virus-related reasons, said Kiyomi Burchill, the California Hospital Association’s vice president for policy and leader on pandemic matters.
In response, hospitals are turning to temporary staffing agencies or transferring patients out.
University of Utah Health plans to keep more than 50 beds open because it doesn’t have enough nurses. It is also rescheduling surgeries that aren’t urgent. In Florida, a hospital temporarily closed its maternity ward because of staff shortages.
In Alabama, where most of the population is unvaccinated, UAB Health in Birmingham put out an urgent request for people to go elsewhere for COVID-19 tests or minor symptoms and stay home for all but true emergencies. Treatment rooms were so crowded that some patients had to be evaluated in hallways and closets.
As of Monday, New York state had just over 10,000 people in the hospital with COVID-19, including 5,500 in New York City. That’s the most in either the city or state since the disastrous spring of 2020.
New York City hospital officials, though, reported that things haven’t become dire. Generally, the patients aren’t as sick as they were back then. Of the patients hospitalized in New York City, around 600 were in ICU beds.
“We’re not even halfway to what we were in April 2020,” said Dr. David Battinelli, the physician-in-chief for Northwell Health, New York state’s largest hospital system.
Similarly, in Washington state, the number of COVID-19-infected people on ventilators increased over the past two weeks, but the share of patients needing such equipment dropped.
In South Carolina, which is seeing unprecedented numbers of new cases and a sharp rise in hospitalizations, Gov. Henry McMaster took note of the seemingly less-serious variant and said: “There’s no need to panic. Be calm. Be happy.”
Amid the omicron-triggered surge in demand for COVID-19 testing across the U.S., New York City’s Fire Department is asking people not to call for ambulance just because they are having trouble finding a test.
In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine announced new or expanded testing sites in nine cities to steer test-seekers away from ERs. About 300 National Guard members are being sent to help out at those centers.
In Connecticut, many ER patients are in beds in hallways, and nurses are often working double shifts because of staffing shortages, said Sherri Dayton, a nurse at the Backus Plainfield Emergency Care Center. Many emergency rooms have hours-long waiting times, she said.
“We are drowning. We are exhausted,” Dayton said.
Doctors and nurses are complaining about burnout and a sense their neighbors are no longer treating the pandemic as a crisis, despite day after day of record COVID-19 cases.
“In the past, we didn’t have the vaccine, so it was us all hands together, all the support. But that support has kind of dwindled from the community, and people seem to be moving on without us,” said Rachel Chamberlin, a nurse at New Hampshire’s Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.
Edward Merrens, chief clinical officer at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health, said more than 85% of the hospitalized COVID-19 patients were unvaccinated.
Several patients in the hospital’s COVID-19 ICU unit were on ventilators, a breathing tube down their throats. In one room, staff members made preparations for what they feared would be the final family visit for a dying patient.
One of the unvaccinated was Fred Rutherford, a 55-year-old from Claremont, New Hampshire. His son carried him out of the house when he became sick and took him to the hospital, where he needed a breathing tube for a while and feared he might die.
If he returns home, he said, he promises to get vaccinated and tell others to do so too.
“I probably thought I was immortal, that I was tough,” Rutherford said, speaking from his hospital bed behind a window, his voice weak and shaky.
But he added: “I will do anything I can to be the voice of people that don’t understand you’ve got to get vaccinated. You’ve got to get it done to protect each other.”
Even as daily new COVID cases set all-time records and hospitals fill up, epidemiologists have arrived at a perhaps surprising consensus. Yes, the latest Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus is bad. But it could have been a lot worse.
Even as cases have surged, deaths haven’t—at least not to the same degree. Omicron is highly transmissible but generally not as severe as some older variants—“lineages” is the scientific term.
We got lucky. But that luck might not hold. Many of the same epidemiologists who have breathed a sigh of relief over Omicron’s relatively low death rate are anticipating that the next lineage might be much worse.
Fretting over a possible future lineage that combines Omicron’s extreme transmissibility with the severity of, say, the previous Delta lineage, experts are beginning to embrace a new public health strategy that’s getting an early test run in Israel: a four-shot regimen of messenger-RNA vaccine.
“I think this will be the strategy going forward,” Edwin Michael, an epidemiologist at the Center for Global Health Infectious Disease Research at the University of South Florida, told The Daily Beast.
Omicron raised alarms in health agencies all over the world in late November after officials in South Africa reported the first cases. Compared to older lineages, Omicron features around 50 key mutations, some 30 of which are on the spike protein that helps the virus to grab onto our cells.
Some of the mutations are associated with a virus’s ability to dodge antibodies and thus partially evade vaccines. Others are associated with higher transmissibility. The lineage’s genetic makeup pointed to a huge spike in infections in the unvaccinated as well as an increase in milder “breakthrough” infections in the vaccinated.
That’s exactly what happened. Health officials registered more than 10 million new COVID cases the first week of January. That’s nearly double the previous worst week for new infections, back in May. Around 3 million of those infections were in the United States, where Omicron coincided with the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year holidays and associated traveling and family gatherings.
But mercifully, deaths haven’t increased as much as cases have. Worldwide, there were 43,000 COVID deaths the first week of January—fewer than 10,000 of them in the U.S. While deaths tend to lag infections by a couple weeks, Omicron has been dominant long enough that it’s increasingly evident there’s been what statisticians call a “decoupling” of cases and fatalities.
“We can say we dodged a bullet in that Omicron does not appear to cause as serious of a disease,” Stephanie James, the head of a COVID testing lab at Regis University in Colorado, told The Daily Beast. She stressed that data is still being gathered, so we can’t be certain yet that the apparent decoupling is real.
Assuming the decoupling is happening, experts attribute it to two factors. First, Omicron tends to infect the throat without necessarily descending to the lungs, where the potential for lasting or fatal damage is much, much higher. Second, by now, countries have administered nearly 9.3 billion doses of vaccine—enough for a majority of the world’s population to have received at least one dose.
In the United States, 73 percent of people have gotten at least one dose. Sixty-two percent have gotten two doses of the best mRNA vaccines. A third have received a booster dose.
Yes, Omicron has some ability to evade antibodies, meaning the vaccines are somewhat less effective against this lineage than they are against Delta and other older lineages. But even when a vaccine doesn’t prevent an infection, it usually greatly reduces its severity.
For many vaccinated people who’ve caught Omicron, the resulting COVID infection is mild. “A common cold or some sniffles in a fully vaxxed and boosted healthy individual,” is how Eric Bortz, a University of Alaska-Anchorage virologist and public health expert, described it to The Daily Beast.
All that is to say, Omicron could have been a lot worse. Viruses evolve to survive. That can mean greater transmissibility, antibody-evasion or more serious infection. Omicron mutated for the former two. There’s a chance some future Sigma or Upsilon lineage could do all three.
When it comes to viral mutations, “extreme events can occur at a non-negligible rate, or probability, and can lead to large consequences,” Michael said. Imagine a lineage that’s as transmissible as Omicron but also attacks the lungs like Delta tends to do. Now imagine that this hypothetical lineage is even more adept than Omicron at evading the vaccines.
That would be the nightmare lineage. And it’s entirely conceivable it’s in our future. There are enough vaccine holdouts, such as the roughly 50 million Americans who say they’ll never get jabbed, that the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen should have ample opportunities for mutation.
“As long as we have unvaccinated people in this country—and across the globe—there is the potential for new and possibly more concerning viral variants to arise,” Aimee Bernard, a University of Colorado immunologist, told The Daily Beast.
Worse, this ongoing viral evolution is happening against a backdrop of waning immunity. Antibodies, whether vaccine-induced or naturally occurring from past infection, fade over time. It’s not for no reason that health agencies in many countries urge booster doses just three months after initial vaccination. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is an outlier, and recommends people get boosted after five months.
A lineage much worse than Omicron could evolve at the same time that antibodies wane in billions of people all over the world. That’s why many experts believe the COVID vaccines will end up being annual or even semi-annual jabs. You’ll need a fourth jab, a fifth jab, a sixth jab, et cetera, forever.
Israel, a world leader in global health, is already turning that expectation into policy. Citing multiple studies that showed a big boost in antibodies with an additional dose of mRNA and no safety concerns, the country’s health ministry this week began offering a fourth dose to anyone over the age of 60, who tend to be more vulnerable to COVID than younger people.
That should be the standard everywhere, Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington Institute for Health, told The Daily Beast. “Scientifically, they’re right,” he said of the Israeli health officials.
If there’s a downside, it’s that there are still a few poorer countries—in Africa, mostly—where many people still struggle to get access to any vaccine, let alone boosters and fourth doses. If and when other richer countries follow Israel’s lead and begin offering additional jabs, there’s some risk of even greater inequity in global vaccine distribution.
“The downside is for the rest of the world,” Mokdad said. “I’m waiting to get my first dose and you guys are getting a fourth?”
The solution isn’t to deprive people of the doses they need to maintain their protection against future—and potentially more dangerous—lineages. The solution, for vaccine-producing countries, is to further boost production and double down on efforts to push vaccines out to the least privileged communities.
A sense of urgency is key. For all its rapid spread, Omicron has actually gone fairly easy on us. Sigma or Upsilon might not.