US health officials monitor COVID surge in UK

March 20, 2022

US health officials are looking at the steady rise in COVID-19 cases in the UK, which NPR says tends to signal what could be happening in the US.

According to the latest data from the UK Health Security Agency, the number of daily cases has increased by 38% in the past week. Hospital admissions have also increased by about 25%.

“Over the past year, what happens in the UK usually happens here a few weeks later,” Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told NPR.

“And at the moment the UK is seeing a bit of an uptick in business,” he said.

Health officials in the UK have noted that the latest increase is likely due to the contagious BA.2 Omicron subvariant, the recent easing of coronavirus restrictions and declining immunity to vaccines and infections.

“All those three factors we have here in the United States,” Fauci said. “So I wouldn’t be surprised if we see either a plateau in the coming weeks… of cases or even… [the curve] bounces back and goes up slightly.”

Currently, cases of COVID-19 in the US have fallen to the lowest level since July 2021, with fewer than 30,000 daily cases, according to the latest CDC data. At the same time, the rate of decline in the number of cases has slowed significantly and is beginning to stabilize.

Public health experts also point to wastewater monitoring data showing an increase in viral activity across the country. The CDC’s wastewater dashboard indicates that approximately 35% of wastewater monitoring sites are seeing an increase, with consistent growth in Florida, Rhode Island, and West Virginia.

“The power of wastewater surveillance is that it’s an early warning system,” Amy Kirby, the program leader of the CDC’s National Wastewater Surveillance System, told NPR.

“We’re seeing signs of growth in some communities across the country,” she said. “What looked like noise at the start of the week is starting to look like a real signal here at the end of the week.”

The wastewater system does not differentiate between Omicron and sub-variants such as BA.2. However, other CDC data has shown an increase in BA.2 cases in the US, accounting for about a quarter of new COVID-19 cases.

The BA.2 variant has doubled about every week for the past month, meaning it could become the dominant coronavirus strain in the US in the coming weeks, according to USA Today. Cases appear to be spreading faster in the Northeast and West, accounting for about 39% of cases in New York and New Jersey last week.

BA.2 is also responsible for nearly 39% of cases in the Northeast, including Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont, USA Today reported. In the West, including Arizona, California and Nevada, the subvariant accounts for about 28% of new cases. In the upper west, which includes Alaska, Oregon and Washington, about 26% of cases are BA.2.

The good news is that BA.2 “doesn’t seem to escape our vaccines or immunity any more than the earlier Omicron [variant]† And it doesn’t seem to lead to more increased disease severity,” Rochelle Walensky, MD, the CDC director told NPR’s Morning Edition on Friday.

The effects of BA.2 will likely depend on the immunity profile in the US, including how long it has been since someone was vaccinated, boosted or recovered from an infection, she said.

Health officials are looking at other countries with BA.2 increases, such as Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. Many European countries have reported an uptick, but have not implemented major restrictions or closures, USA Today reported.

The BA.2 variant is unlikely to lead to a major increase in serious illness or strict COVID-19 measures, Fauci told NPR, but some coronavirus protocols may need to be re-implemented if cases increase dramatically.

“We need to be ready to flip and go back to stricter mitigation on masks if necessary,” he said.

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