June 13, 2024

COVID Levels Surge Going Into Holidays As New Variants Emerge

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Dec 22, 2023

Wastewater Tracking Shows Spikes Across U.S.

As millions of Americans prepare to travel and gather with family and friends over the holidays this year, COVID-19 levels are surging across most of the United States, according to wastewater tracking and official case counts. Wastewater surveillance serves as an early warning sign of rising COVID prevalence, as virus particles show up in sewage days before people start testing positive or feeling symptoms. According to a recent CDC analysis, 40% of wastewater sites nationwide have seen at least a doubling in COVID levels over the past 15 days compared to the previous 15 days.

Areas seeing particularly large recent viral load spikes in wastewater include Vermont, Oregon, Ohio, Colorado, Arkansas, Utah and California. For example, in Vermont, there was over a sixfold jump in COVID prevalence based on sewage sampling in the state capital of Montpelier. California is experiencing rising COVID levels across all regions of the state, with the Bay Area numbers tripling over the past month. And Salt Lake City, Utah recorded one of its largest-ever spikes over the past two weeks.

State % Increase in COVID Levels* Main Area(s) Affected
Vermont 600% State capital: Montpelier
Oregon 400% Portland metropolitan area
Ohio 250% Cleveland, Akron
Colorado 225% Denver, Boulder

*Based on wastewater surveillance data over past 2 weeks

Table: Selected states seeing large spikes in COVID-19 prevalence based on wastewater tracking

These figures all point to rapidly rising infection rates going into a period when people are more likely to gather and spread the virus around. Health experts say the increased social mixing and travel around the holidays is cause for heightened concern this year in particular.

New Omicron Subvariants Spreading Quickly

Driving the wintertime COVID surge are several highly transmissible new sublineages of Omicron, especially BQ.1 and BQ.1.1. Together they now account for over 50% of U.S. cases. These new variants appear moderately better at evading immunity from vaccination and previous infection compared to BA.5, which dominated over the summer. So far there’s no evidence BQ.1 or BQ.1.1 cause more severe disease, but the sheer volume of infections alone threatens to overwhelm hospitals.

In one troubling sign of what could be to come, Chicago is getting slammed by rising cases right now, two weeks ahead of the holidays. Test positivity there has reached 10%, indicating many infections are being missed. Mayor Lori Lightfoot has pleaded with residents to exercise caution while gathering for Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. She warned, “We are very concerned about it spreading during this period where people are inside more and letting their guard down.”

Meanwhile on the West Coast, the San Francisco Bay Area has also seen cases triple in the last few weeks, as the new Omicron descendants outcompete BA.5. San Francisco’s chief health officer cautioned, “The situation in the Bay Area mirrors concerning trends across California ??? now is not the time to let down our guard.”

Holiday Guidance: Masking Encouraged as Hospitalizations Rise

So how worried should people be about COVID exposure during holiday events and travel right now? Health officials emphasize the most vulnerable populations including seniors and immunocompromised individuals should take extra care to avoid infection. But for most fully vaccinated people, the risk of severe disease remains relatively low at this stage of the pandemic.

Still, surging case numbers threaten to send more people to the hospital, further straining healthcare systems that are already overwhelmed caring for flu and RSV patients. So measures like masking in crowded indoor spaces and on public transit are recommended over the coming weeks. People are also advised to test themselves if exposed or feeling any symptoms, and immediately isolate if positive.

The recent growth curve suggests this holiday wave still has room to intensify before peaking in January. CDC ensemble models predict daily U.S. deaths, which now average around 400, could reach as high as 7,000 in a worst-case scenario this winter. But if new variants don’t emerge and vaccination rates continue gradually improving, the surge may moderate after the new year before another expected rebound next fall and winter.

In the meantime, experts say individuals can help flatten the curve by taking common-sense precautions around the holidays. Meet outdoors rather than inside if gathering with groups. Improve indoor air quality through ventilation, filtration and air purification. Get updated COVID shots to boost protection against symptomatic infection. Wear high quality, well-fitting masks in riskier situations. And above all else ??? stay home if you feel at all sick! Responsible actions by each of us can help ensure our healthcare heroes enjoy peaceful holidays too.


As the U.S. enters year three of COVID-19 circulation, the virus unfortunately remains an unwelcome guest at too many holiday tables. But authorities are monitoring the situation closely and have contingency plans if things spiral out of control. With science guiding policies, safe and effective vaccines and treatments readily available, and individuals empowered to assess their personal risk tolerance ??? there is ample reason for optimism looking ahead to 2024. This time next Christmas, Americans may finally be able to celebrate joyous reunions with the pandemic solidly in the rearview mirror.




AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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