The Omicron variant’s reign was short-lived, with its surge lasting for only three months. Despite that, however, its impact was massive, breaking new records in terms of case counts, hospitalizations, and deaths. Thankfully, Omicron has died down in the U.S. and as a result, federal health and safety mandates have relaxed.
Although we’re slowly getting back to normal, COVID-19 is not over yet. In the past month, we’ve witnessed the slow but steady rise of a new variant, BA.2. As of writing, this Omicron subvariant accounts for the majority of U.S. COVID-19 cases and because of its high transmissibility risk, health authorities predict a new surge is coming.
While we only have a partial picture of what’s to come with BA.2, health officials are watching out for three signs of a new surge.
1. COVID-19 Test Results
COVID-19 test results have always been reliable data in predicting a potential surge. Included in community case counts, rapid test results from doctor’s offices and health departments provide insights on the current risk level of a COVID-19 variant.
However, there is also a big caveat when it comes to testing. As at-home test kits become more available, positive test results are no longer as accessible to health authorities and hence, a large portion of cases are not reflected in official case counts.
2. Hospitalization Rates and Percentage of Hospital Capacity
Because COVID-19 rapid test results can no longer provide actual case numbers, health authorities are looking at them alongside other metrics to track potential surges. Perhaps the most reliable at this point are hospitalization rates and hospital capacity.
The CDC has updated its system of assessing community risk to include hospital admissions and the percentage of beds occupied by COVID-19 patients. A higher hospitalization rate can indicate a surge, which also impacts the hospitals’ capacity to accept new patients.
Using CDC’s metrics to calculate risks, the U.S. falls under a low community risk level. Hospital data can also reveal information about who is most affected by new variants. This is similar to data analyzed during the Omicron surge, which showed that unvaccinated individuals were 7 times more likely to be hospitalized for severe symptoms and 21 times more likely to die from COVID-19.
3. Wastewater Surveillance
Health officials are also factoring in wastewater surveillance data to pinpoint early signs of a new COVID-19 surge. Traces of COVID-19 can show up in feces and provide a glimpse of COVID-19 infections in communities.
Wastewater surveillance is becoming increasingly important at this point because it is a passive way of identifying a potential outbreak. Unlike the metrics of test results and hospitalization rates, wastewater surveillance does not depend on the community’s initiative to get tested or seek medical care.
Combined Data Can Reveal Potential Surge
Alone, these metrics can only tell so much about the possibility of a BA.2 surge. But together, they can provide a bigger picture of where the U.S. stands against the new subvariant. With consistent and careful monitoring of rapid test results, hospitalization rates, and wastewater data, health officials can determine the community-level spread of BA.2 and respond to it before it makes its impact.
As citizens, we too have a role to play in decreasing the likelihood of a new COVID-19 surge. Getting vaccinated, wearing a face mask, and conducting at-home testing can help boost herd immunity so that BA.2 is less likely to be able to spread and aggravate.