Covid infections rise but hospitalizations remain low
WASHINGTON — The Covid-19 pandemic that has rocked the world for two years has entered a new phase, driven by a combination of fear, apathy and uncertainty. In some parts of the country, masks have become a rare sight and the assumption is that the pandemic is over. But in other places, masking is back, as concerns grow over a new variant and the potential for another spike in cases.
Last week, Philadelphia announced it was reinstating an indoor mask mandate for the city until rates drop again. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has changed course and said masks will continue to be mandatory on commercial flights until at least May 3. This mandate was originally due to expire on April 18.
People may want assurances about the virus and what’s next, but they’re hard to find in the data. Instead, the numbers paint a murky and unclear picture on Covid, particularly with regard to case numbers and hospital occupancy.
At this point in the pandemic, hospitalizations are probably the strongest measure of the nation’s situation on Covid, and currently they are still low nationally. Hospitalizations are up very slightly from last week, but still near a 21-month low and far from previous peaks.
For the most recent week, the seven-day average is 1,464 new hospital admissions for Covid-19 in the United States, according to the CDC. Last week, that figure was 1,425. So this week’s number only increased by about 40 – a figure that could amount to noise in the data. By mid-January, the seven-day average number was over 21,000.
Those numbers give an idea of just how different things are now compared to the worst omicron in hospitals nationwide.
The numbers around Covid cases seem a bit more troubling. There’s been a bigger increase in the past few weeks, not exactly a spike, but a noticeable increase.
Data from the most recent week shows a daily average of around 35,967 positives. That’s an increase of around 18% from two weeks ago, a figure that may raise some eyebrows. Keep in mind, though, this is in a country of over 300 million people. Then compare those numbers to where this nation was at the peak of the omicron surge, when infections peaked at an average of over 800,000 over a seven-day period, and you see a very Covid landscape. different.
And there are bigger questions around case numbers: how reliable are they and where do they come from?
After all, to test positive you must first be tested and Covid-19 testing in the country is currently very different depending on where you are. Figures from the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center show how big the differences can be.
Consider just two states, California and New Jersey.
Last week, New Jersey tested 47 out of 100,000 people, according to the Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. During the same period, California tested more than 1,400 out of 100,000.
To be clear, test data is difficult to collect and the numbers certainly don’t capture everything. But across the country, the differences in the number of tests are huge and raise questions about what states are capturing in their metrics.
Could the national increase in cases be due to a few states or a few densely populated areas increasing testing? The national case count is currently so low that even a small difference in testing in a few places could lead to different opinions about how the virus is spreading.
And how many cases are states already missing with lower testing levels? If Covid manifests with milder symptoms, some people with the virus may treat it as a cold or flu if they don’t get tested.
As always with Covid, all of these numbers require the caveat “right now”.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the Covid situation can change quickly. New variants appear. Gatherings become spreading events. And the differences on the ground from place to place can be dramatic.
But, for now, the data on the virus is far from clear. And despite growing concerns, the figures suggest little has changed in recent weeks.