COVID-19 cases have risen in the U.S. to around 100,000 per day, and the real number could be as much as five times that, given many go unreported.
But the situation is far different from the early months of the pandemic. There are now vaccines and booster shots, and new treatments that dramatically cut the risk of the virus. So how much do cases alone still matter?
That question has prompted debate among experts, even as much of America goes on with their lives, despite the recent surge in cases.
How much concern high case numbers alone should prompt is “the trillion-dollar question,” said Bob Wachter, chair of the department of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco.
In the early days of the pandemic, dying of COVID-19 was a concern for him, but now, in an era of vaccines and treatments, “it doesn’t even cross my mind anymore,” he said.
But he noted there are other risks, including long COVID-19: symptoms like fatigue or difficulty concentrating that can linger for months.
“I think long COVID is pretty scary,” he said.
While cases have risen to around 100,000 reported per day, deaths have stayed flat, a testament to the power of vaccines and booster shots in preventing severe illness, as well as the Pfizer treatment pills Paxlovid, which cut the risk of hospitalization or death by around 90 percent.
Hospitalizations have risen, but only modestly, to around 27,000, one of the lowest points of the pandemic, according to a New York Times tracker.
Cases have now been “partially decoupled” from causing hospitalizations and deaths, said Preeti Malani, an infectious disease expert at the University of Michigan, such that hospitals are no longer overwhelmed.
“[Cases are] not without any consequence, but in terms of pressure on the health system, so far we’re not seeing that, which is really what drove all of this,” she said.
The behavior of much of America reflects a lessened concern about the risk of being infected. Restaurants and bars are packed. Many people do not wear masks even on airplanes or on the subway.
An Axios-Ipsos poll in May found just 36 percent of Americans said there was significant risk in returning to their “normal pre-coronavirus life.”
In the Biden administration, health officials are still advising people to wear masks in areas the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies as at “high” risk. But President Biden himself is talking about the virus far less than he did at the start of his administration, and is not making sustained calls for people to wear masks.
White House COVID-19 response coordinator Ashish Jha touted progress in defanging cases on Thursday.
“We see cases rising, nearly 100,000 cases a day, and yet we’re still seeing death numbers that are substantially, about 90 percent lower, than where they were when the president first took office,” he told reporters.
Some experts are pushing back on the deemphasis of case numbers, saying they still matter.
“The bunk that cases are not important is preposterous,” Eric Topol, professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research, wrote last month. “They are infections that beget more cases, they beget Long Covid, they beget sickness, hospitalizations and deaths. They are also the underpinning of new variants.”
Even if one does not get severely ill oneself, more cases mean more chances for the virus to spread on to someone who is more vulnerable, like the elderly or immunocompromised.
While deaths are way down from their peak earlier in the pandemic, there are still around 300 people dying from the virus every day, a number that would have proved shocking in a pre-COVID-19 world.
Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University, recommended that people take a rapid test before visiting a more vulnerable person, as a safeguard that avoids more burdensome restrictions.
“Cases alone do not tell the whole story,” she said, adding, “As a policy matter we need to stop using the same comparisons we were in 2020 and 2021.”
There is still much that is unknown about long COVID-19, one of the biggest risks remaining for healthy, younger people who are vaccinated.
A recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimated 10 percent to 30 percent of COVID-19 infections result in long COVID-19 symptoms, but there is no precise estimate.
Experts also urge people who have not gotten their booster shots, or not been vaccinated at all, to do so, given that many are more vulnerable to the virus if they are not up-to-date on their shots.
A new variant also always holds the risk of upending the current risk-benefit calculations. The virus has continued to evolve to spread more easily, and a future mutation could cause more severe illness or more greatly evade vaccines.
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Pfizer and Moderna are working on updated vaccines to better target the omicron variant, but the Biden administration warns it will not have enough money to purchase those new vaccines for all Americans this fall unless Congress provides more funding. The funding request has been stalled for months, though, itself a sign of the reduced sense of urgency around the virus fight.
At least for now, though, while many people are getting COVID-19, fewer are getting extremely sick.
“It’s a very risky time if you don’t want to get COVID [at all],” Wachter said. “But a relatively less risky time if your goal is to not get severe COVID or die.”