The COVID winter wave that wasn’t so bad

As one reflects medically on this winter’s COVID case activity and disease burden, as the season appears to be fading into spring, it appears it hasn’t been nearly as bad as the previous two. A March 13 ABC News article compares annual numbers in those nasty, germ-heavy months for the past 3 winters. Last fall, there was a rather dire prediction that maybe 100 million Americans could be infected. As it turns out so far, many people are not actually getting sick and not dying as many from COVID as in the past two winters.

The article states: “Experts tell ABC News that a combination of increased immunity, better treatments, fewer severe infections, and more people following mitigation measures (which mostly means masks) likely played their part.”

The article cites the highest number of cases and deaths in a week from the CDC. These are the most accurate numbers we have. While probably not covering every single case, there is a sense of disease activity and severity. In the first winter, the week of January 13, 2021 peaked at 1,714,256 cases and 23,378 deaths. This is when the first vaccines became available only to healthcare workers and those over 65 years of age.

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In the second winter of 2021/22, mainly due to Omicron variants, infections peaked at 5,630,736 in the week of January 19, 2022. Deaths from COVID peaked at 17,373 in the week of February 2, 2022.

So far this winter, the highest number of cases in the week of December 7, 2022 was 472,601. It’s the first year with fewer than a million, not even half, but it was five times lower than the first winter’s peak and four times lower than last year’s peak. These two dates are encouraging in several ways.

Since the original Omicron variant and then its successors have dominated infections, the severity has generally decreased. This severity also depends on each person’s unique immunity, but as a group we don’t get as sick. The number of hospital admissions has decreased significantly as a sign of this change. dr Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, said: “I think the reduction in serious disease is (due to) increased immunity in the population. Just the percentage of people who were exposed and then you put the vaccinations on top of that.”

Another way to interpret this idea might be to reflect on the reality of how many people have been exposed to the Omicron variant crowd, had asymptomatic infections or mild symptoms, thought it was a cold, didn’t get a COVID test, it shaken off, but immunity still developed. As of May 2022, the CDC estimated that more than 94% of the US population has COVID-induced antibodies from either previous infections or vaccinations. And a new mutation hasn’t emerged to terrorize us again! Yay, so far.

How many of us have gotten sick in the last few months, took a home COVID test, learned we were infected, got over it and not reported or recorded it to our doctor? My wife and I can both hold up our hands. How many of us have acquaintances who said they had COVID, probably didn’t tell a doctor, and got over it without seeing a doctor? I can count several. We really don’t know what the level of immunity is, only that the number of hospital admissions and deaths is decreasing. The immunity has to be up there.

Maybe 100 million people have been quietly infected for a change? When it comes to herd immunity, it can be good to be part of the herd. You can say you “treasure” it here first.

dr Bures, a semi-retired dermatologist, has worked for Winona, La Crosse, Viroqua and Red Wing since 1978. He also plays clarinet in the Winona Municipal Band and a few Dixieland groups. And he enjoys a good pun.

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