A look at where we are in the pandemic — and where we're headed

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Tufts Medical Center staff and patients capture the pandemic in phrases painted on rocks in January 2022. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Tufts Medical Center staff and patients capture the pandemic in phrases painted on rocks in January 2022. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

COVID-19 cases throughout the state have been on an upswing in the past few weeks.

The Department of Public Health says the seven-day positive test rate has doubled in the last month. The number of people hospitalized is at levels we haven't seen since February. Not to mention, there's a highly transmissible subvariant of omicron that has been spreading across the country.

For a look at where we are in the pandemic and where we're headed, Morning Edition host Rupa Shenoy speaks with Harvard epidemiologist Bill Hanage.

Highlights from this interview have been lightly edited for clarity.

Interview Highlights

On the driving forces behind the recent uptick

[The] major driving force behind what we're seeing now is the spread of this variant, BA2.12.1, which arose in upstate New York, and which seems to be pretty good at transmitting and also being able to sidestep a little bit of immunity. It has a couple of mutations which make it more able to do that, and that's driving transmission in the region right now. Alongside that, obviously, we have people mixing, making contacts, giving the virus opportunities to transmit. What we're seeing is really entirely predictable.

On how severe this variant is

It doesn't seem to cause very much more severe disease than the other omicron variants, which, it's beginning to be pretty clear now, are less bad than delta. But don't run away with the thought that that means that they're mild; within the context of no vaccination, they can cause very serious surges ... But in a highly vaccinated community, they're much more able to be handled.

I should also note that the numbers of cases that we're seeing at the moment are far, far short of those that we saw in January. We are under-identifying them for sure, because of the fact that people are doing rapid tests and they don't get counted in the same way. But we're still seeing far fewer infections than we have in previous omicron current waves, and we should bear that in mind.

On where the pandemic is headed

We can expect there to be seasonality. We're going to see things get somewhat worse in the fall and winter, that is a pattern which is pretty clear. I also think we're going to see relatively little over the summer, because that's another pattern which has emerged from the last few years.

If you look nationally at the number of deaths that we are having per week, if you roll that out over the entire year, that would be two really bad flu seasons. And that's now, when things are, relatively speaking, good. I think most people don't think in terms of bad flu seasons, they just think about what's happening within their immediate environment. So from the public health perspective, we've got to remember that this is something we're going to be fighting with for a hell of a long time.

On what people should keep in mind

People should remember that immunity is not equally distributed in the population. A lot of people around me are having COVID right now — but those are people, typically, who didn't get COVID back in January, so they don't have the additional dollop of immunity, which comes from having been infected then. So if you're in a network in which nobody got BA.1, you're sort of by definition in a network which is more fertile for BA.2. People who are experiencing a lot of cases around them at the moment should reflect on that.

People should also know that we have a number of effective therapies to an extent that we did not have previous stages of the pandemic. So, treat this thing with respect, but don't think that we are without the ability to make things a lot better.

This segment aired on May 20, 2022.

Headshot of Rupa Shenoy

Rupa Shenoy Morning Edition Host
Rupa Shenoy hosts WBUR's Morning Edition.


Headshot of Hafsa Quraishi

Hafsa Quraishi Associate Producer, Here & Now
Hafsa Quraishi is an associate producer for Here & Now.



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