Has the COVID storm passed or will there be another COVID-19 surge next winter?

Concord Monitor
Published: 2/27/2022 9:40:53 PM
Modified: 2/27/2022 9:40:26 PM

COVID-19 cases are down. Hospitals are recovering. Mask requirements are lifting like a sunrise after a storm.

The most recent and severe coronavirus surge in New Hampshire appears to be coming to an end. The question is whether the worst of the pandemic is behind us or if there is another surge around the corner.

Dr. Jose Mercado, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center’s COVID Response Leader, said that answer depends on two factors: the community’s level of immunity and whether — and how — the virus mutates.

Right now, it’s difficult to tell how many Granite Staters have developed some level of immunity to the coronavirus.

Generally, people can build immunity to COVID-19 in two ways: through vaccination or from infection. Reliable data on both measures is scarce. The rise in popularity of at-home rapid tests, which are rarely reported to state agencies, have likely made the state’s case count an underestimation. The state also does not have reliable data on how many Granite Staters have been vaccinated and boosted — estimates vary dramatically due to missing records and incorrectly coded booster dose data.

The current level of immunity seems to have finally quelled the exponential rise of the omicron variant. But there are still many unknowns about how long immunity lasts and whether it will sustain long enough to protect people next winter.

There is evidence that the immunity response from the vaccine lasts longer than the immunity from an infection, Mercado said. Even so, a recent study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that immunity against severe disease begins to wane four months after receiving the third dose.

Mercado said he thinks we may be heading toward a world in which COVID-19 shots are necessary every six months or year, like the flu shot.

At this point, Mercado said it’s extremely unlikely that we’ll eradicate COVID-19. The virus has become so transmissible that nearly 100% of the population would have to have immunity in order to live in a COVID-free world, a feat nearly impossible because of immunocompromised groups.

“Look, we want to get to zero,” Gov. Chris Sununu said at a news conference recently. “The risk profile will never be zero. … This could be with us for years.”

The best shot at normalcy is getting enough people vaccinated that the state can avoid dangerous spikes that overwhelm the health care system and cause unnecessary deaths, Sununu said.

“We do want businesses to thrive, and we do want to be able to do the things that we enjoy in the community,” he said. “Being able to live with COVID means that we have some of those mitigation strategies in place so that we’re able to enjoy those activities but not putting ourselves and others at risk.”

High vaccination rates would both boost lasting immunity and help prevent new variants from taking hold.

New variants can arise when the virus mutates while replicating in human cells. Most mutations are harmful to the virus and will kill it off, but occasionally mutation combinations give the virus an advantage. The 50 new mutation combinations found in omicron, for example, are thought to make it more infectious.

The more the virus spreads, the more opportunities there are for the coronavirus to mutate. Though breakthrough infections are possible, fully vaccinated people appear to spread COVID-19 for a shorter period, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Mercado also said there are behavioral measures that can be integrated into society that can help keep infection levels manageable, like wearing face masks in densely populated indoor areas.

“Other cultures have kind of adopted this, particularly those that had experienced respiratory viruses, so I think it’s a sensible choice to make moving forward,” he said.

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