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To predict trends in COVID-19 infection rates, the devil is in the detail

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Global-pandemic-image-globe-with-maskBy its nature, capturing the “big picture” about a universal health issue, like trends in COVID-19 infection rates, involves collecting, collating, and analyzing a lot of data from many sources. Sometimes, by the time it’s all put together, the predictions drawn already need an update; changes in the real world tend to move faster than our understanding of them. For this reason, we offer an exploration of early trends in COVID-19 infection rates that could be a reliable indication of what is happening right now. Hopefully, it will shine a little light on the medium- and longer-term trends.

Looking North

There is ample evidence from the last three years that confirms that as the weather cools down, COVID-19 infections start to climb. This holds true for trends in COVID-19 infection rates, influenza, and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) infections. So, picking up trends in infection rates from the Canadian provinces that are already slipping into their typical cold weather patterns can give a two-to-three week periscope into what’s most likely to happen in the northern US states later in Autumn.

In Alberta, there has been a 73% increase in hospitalizations over roughly five weeks as of September 8th. Also, according to an official statement from the province’s Minister of Health, in the three weeks up to September 18th, laboratories had confirmed 559 cases of COVID-19 infection. There had been 92 people hospitalized, with five COVID-19 deaths.

In Saskatchewan, the province’s Community Respiratory Illness Surveillance Program (CRISP) reports an almost 50% increase in the rate of lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases in the most recent surveillance period. The trends in COVID-19 infection rates only tell part of the story because COVID-19 laboratory testing is uncommon outside of a hospital setting. Another statistic that will be relevant when it’s time to look at trends down South is that only 46% of people over the age of five have received a primary COVID-19 vaccine and at least one booster.

British Columbia’s Centre for Disease Control reported that in the week ending September 2nd, more than triple the number of cases was reported compared to the week ending August 12th. Hospital admissions were also much higher, increasing by almost 43% in two weeks. Deaths from COVID-19 almost doubled in the same period. BC also detected Canada’s first known case of the BA. 2.86 variant.

Looking East

Unfortunately, Europe follows a similar pattern to the US in conducting mass data collection and analysis of trends in COVID-19 infection rates before any reporting comes out. As reported on the Politico Europe website, “COVID-19 transmission in Europe appears to have risen in recent weeks, but with the majority of countries not providing full data on the virus, experts are in the dark about the true extent of the situation, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said” on September 7th. Politico explains that “Only one-third of the countries reported data on admissions to hospital or ICU and around half reported data on COVID-19 deaths.” This is making it harder to get any meaningful information about the trends

News from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) on September 7th was that “In recent weeks, signals of SARS-CoV-2 transmission have increased from previously very low levels in the EU/EEA.” Focusing on the newest mutation (BA.2.86), the ECDC raises the concern that the variant is highly divergent from the currently circulating SARS-CoV-2 variants. This brings the increased possibility of re-infections. As of this writing, there is no evidence that the new variant influences the trends in COVID-19 infection rates. Also, there’s no solid evidence that it produces more severe symptoms or that current vaccines are ineffective against it. However, there is a strong feeling among healthcare officials that older people and those with underlying conditions remain at increased risk of severe outcomes if infected.

Looking South

Countries in the Southern Hemisphere are slowly getting over the peak period of vulnerability. Still, the trends in COVID-19 infection rates are coming down slower than expected. As reported here, the number of people infected by RSV is much higher than ever before, and it is beginning to alarm healthcare officials. By mid-July 2023, about 70,000 cases had been reported. In some states, this was close to ten times as many as had been reported at the same stage last year.

Spring has come early to most of the eastern states in Australia, with record-high temperatures in the third week of September. Nevertheless, there are signs that the infection rate by SARS-CoV-2 has not yet receded. Coming from New South Wales, one state that reports comparative statistics, the infection rate in tested people has increased each week over the four weeks ending September 10th. Now, nearly 5% of all tests yield a positive result.

Looking through the (electron) microscope at BA.2.86

In the last week of August 2023, the US Government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued the first “Risk Assessment Summary for SARS CoV-2 Sublineage BA.2.86” – the latest variant of COVID-19 that’s causing concern. The most relevant finding is that the new variant “may be more capable of causing infection in people who have previously had COVID-19 or who have received COVID-19 vaccines. Scientists are evaluating the effectiveness of the forthcoming, updated COVID-19 vaccine. CDC’s current assessment is that this updated vaccine will be effective at reducing severe disease and hospitalization.”

What lessons can we take from preliminary findings about trends in COVID-19 infection rates?

What’s to be learned from these disconnected but related pieces of information? My takeaway is that the approach we have put forward in most of our articles (for example – Learn what you can do to protect yourself and New strains of COVID-19) dealing with the ongoing effect of COVID-19 is still the best starting point.

  1.   Vaccines work. This is especially relevant for vulnerable population groups, such as people over the age of 65 or who have compromised immune systems. Still, it applies to everyone else as well. As the CDC website says, “COVID-19 vaccines are safe, effective, and free. Everyone aged six months and older should get an updated COVID-19 vaccine.” It looks like there is deep concern, as expressed by CDC, that the rate of people receiving booster doses is way too low. Whereas 81% of the total population (and 95% of people over the age of 64) received the initial dose, the figures of those who have received the bivalent booster are just 17% of the total population and only 43% of those over the age of 64.
  2.   General infection levels in the population are bound to climb as the Northern Hemisphere goes into winter. There are ways to minimize the chance of getting infected. One of the easiest is Enovid, which creates a physical barrier against infection from air-borne viruses and delivers a measured dose of nitric oxide nasal spray (NONS), designed to kill the respiratory viruses that cause COVID-19 in the nasal cavity.

Questions people ask about COVID-19

Who is most at risk of severe illness from COVID-19?

People with underlying medical problems like high blood pressure, diabetes, and other chronic health problems affecting their heart, lungs, kidneys, or brain are more likely to develop severe symptoms from the virus. People who have low immune functionality (including HIV/AIDS) or are receiving immunosuppression medications are more likely to be infected. Unvaccinated people or people who have not received booster shots within the previous six months are also at increased risk.

Are there long-term effects of COVID-19?

Whether they needed hospitalization or not when they were infected with COVID-19, some people continue to experience symptoms, including shortness of breath, cognitive dysfunction (which people call brain fog), and fatigue. The list is long, with over two hundred reported post-COVID-19 symptoms on record and growing. Long COVID is also known as post-COVID-19 conditions.

Are antibiotics effective in preventing or treating COVID-19?

Not just in the context of COVID-19, antibiotics do not work against viruses. They only work on bacterial infections. Antibiotics should not be taken as a way of preventing or treating COVID-19. Physicians sometimes prescribe antibiotics to treat complications like secondary bacterial infections in severely ill patients with COVID-19.

How does the SARS-CoV-2 virus spread?

The virus spreads mainly when virus-containing particles are expelled by a person who is infected via a sneeze or cough. Even normal breathing and speaking can transmit the virus to nearby people. Primarily, the virus-containing particles will be inhaled through the nose and mouth or deposited on the eyes.

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