After watching months of declining numbers, some public health officials now worry that Covid-19 may be on the rise. According to data released by the CDC on Thursday, there were 7,109 new Covid-19 hospital admissions during the week ending July 15. That’s a 10.3% increase over the previous week and the highest number of new admissions since the week ending on June 3. Positive test data also are trending up. For the week ending on June 10, 4.1% of SARS-CoV-2 tests conducted at sentinel laboratories were positive. That rate jumped to 7.6% for the week ending on July 22.

Although the numbers vary by location, the uptick seems be occurring in most regions of the country. In North Carolina, for example, the number of people hospitalized with Covid-19 has increased weekly over the past month, from a low of 165 people during the end of June to 210 people during the end of July. A similar trend can be seen in New York. During the third week of June, the state recorded 81 new Covid-19 hospital admissions. During the week ending on July 26, that number had risen to 118.

Is this the beginning of a summer surge?

Before getting too concerned, it’s important to put these numbers in context. At first glance, a 10% increase sounds alarming. But the actual numbers are low. The 7,109 new hospitalizations last week? A year ago, there were over 40,000 new Covid-19 hospitalizations per week. In fact, the number of Covid-19 hospitalizations in the United States is at its lowest level since the very early days of the pandemic. The positive test rate needs to be contextualized, too. Yes, the positivity rate has increased from 4.1% to 7.6% over the past six weeks. But a year ago, over 14% of tests were positive. And many more tests were being administered.

One number that hasn’t increased? Covid-19 deaths. According to the CDC data, there were 166 deaths due to Covid-19 in the United States during the third week in July. That number has been decreasing steadily since the beginning of the year. Deaths tend to lag behind hospitalizations, so that number may go up in the coming weeks. But, like hospitalizations, deaths due to Covid-19 are at their lowest levels since March 2020.

The recent increases reported by the CDC are a good reminder that Covid-19 hasn’t gone away. In all likelihood, it won’t go away. Community transmission of SARS-CoV-2 continues. And for vulnerable populations, like the elderly, it remains a very serious threat. For the general population, however, the risk of severe complications due to Covid-19 has dropped dramatically. Because most people now have some form of immunity, either from vaccinations, natural infections, or a combination of both, the severity of the disease has decreased significantly.

So, what does the future hold? The recent upticks reported by the CDC could be transient blips. Or, we could experience a new surge later this summer or this fall. A new variant could emerge that is more pathogenic and can evade existing immunity. Or the current trend of fewer deaths could continue. Surveillance is necessary. Genomic analysis to detect new variants is necessary. The development of new, even more effective vaccines is necessary. And all of us need to remember that the virus hasn’t disappeared.

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