As COVID-19 surges the past few days in dozens of provinces in China, in Hong Kong, and in Shanghai, sowing confusion and chaos, with 2000 cases a day, USA Today Network on Monday, March 21, 2022, reported “New COVID variant is spreading across the US.”
It was referring to Omicron variant BA.2, the “Stealth Omicron,” first detected two months ago and now “spreading more quickly in the Northeast and West.”
The US CDC announced the Stealth Omicron “appears to be on its way to becoming the dominant coronavirus strain, having roughly doubled each week for the past month…It has a different genetic sequence from BA.1 and was first dubbed the ‘stealth variant’ because it wasn’t as easy to detect.
Around the world, infections are largely from the BA.2 version of omicron…In the U.S., BA.2 accounted for about 39 percent of the cases for the week ending March 12, up from 14.2% the week ending March 5.”
Last week, a total of 15,412 new COVID-19 cases were reported in New York, a jump from 11,323 a week prior, many from Stealth subvariant which is expected to become the dominant strain across the country soon.
The mask mandate on airplanes and public transit has been extended by TSA through April 18, 2022.
Sadly, only 65%!
Meanwhile, Covid vaccines rates in Africa are still low, averaging about 14 percent across the continent, and public health experts predict a fifth wave of COVID-19 in Africa in the coming months, which could potentially be caused by a future more lethal variant that could endanger the whole world.
The more unvaccinated people there are in an area or a country, the greater the chance of the virus they harbor could replicate and mutate in their bodies, acting as a reservoir factory of new strains of the virus.
In the United States, a world leader, whose population is mostly educated, has a vaccination rate of 65 percent (fully vaccinated) as of Sunday, March 20, 2022, sadly, lower than many other countries. There were 7,844 COVID-19 cases and 83 deaths on that day alone.
More than 5.86 billion doses of the COVID-19 vaccines have been administered globally, albeit not equally distributed around the world.
Malta, with its half a million people, boasts the top vaccination rate on earth, with 82.82 percent, followed by The United Arab Emirates, with 79.97 percent of its 9.7 million population.
Singapore, Portugal, and Qatar are among the top five. China, with its 1.4 billion people has 69.38 percent, the USA, 65 percent. The UK, France, Italy, Germany, all with a population of more than 50 million, gave among the best vaccination rates.
Hope and caution
There is general optimism about the pandemic across the country as spring comes, but in some cities in the United States and across the world “warning lights are blinking,” as the World Health Organization reported there were 11 million new cases around the globe in the week ending March 13, up 8 percent over the previous week, the first increase since late January 2022.
In the UK, almost 256,000 re-infections were recorded as of the first week of January 2022. Some people around the world were reinfected more than twice.
As of 3:24 PM (EST), Tuesday, March 22, 2022: Total global COVID-19 cases: 473,329,373, new one-day cases -1,09,094, total deaths – 6,108,307; USA: 81,450,502, new one-day cases – 2101, (Monday) – 46,608, total deaths – 998,936 – The Philippines: 3,674,694 , new one-day cases – 415, total deaths – 58,276.
The New York Times reports “the U.S. faces a potential uptick in cases because about a quarter of eligible adults have yet to be vaccinated;” only 65 percent have been fully vaccinated.
A study of 1.1 million school children revealed that mask mandates significantly reduced COVID-19 transmission.
According to the New York Times, some of the largest school districts in California will continue masking after the state requirement for masks ends, a move greatly supported by parents knowing a significant number of children have been infected and died from COVID-19.
China is being ravaged by its worst COVID-19 outbreaks since 2020. The Omicron variant is raging over Asia, with South Korea having a record 400,741 daily cases last Wednesday.
China has imposed a lockdown on 9 million residents of the northeastern city of Changchun. This week, China had 4,500 cases of COVID-19 in one day.
Another wave of Omicron could potentially hit Europe because its highest per capita cases in the world are now going up. Germany approaches record level and the cases are going up in Italy, Belgium, France, and other countries. This was thought to be because Europe loosened its pandemic restrictions “too soon” fueling the spike, the waning vaccine immunity, and the spread of the BA.2 subvariant.
Wastewater sampling for SARS-CoV2 could be an indicator of the resurgence of COVID-19 in the United States, where 38 percent of the sampling sites showed an increase in coronavirus levels from February 24 to March 10, 2022.
The Times quoted an epidemiologist saying “Europe’s worst periods throughout the pandemic have been a harbinger of what was to come in the United States.”
Hence, the serious concern in the United States about a possible fifth wave.
At this juncture of the pandemic, 26 months since COVID-19 hit the United States, we have learned a few things: that masking and distancing are most beneficial, that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective in preventing serious infection, hospitalization, and death, and that those unvaccinated are the prime target of the virus and have the highest risk for hospitalization and death. As stated above, sadly, only 65 percent of the people in the United States are vaccinated.
We also now know that even those fully vaccinated (2 initial shots plus a booster) could still get infected by a new variant, but the chances of getting infected are much lower and the clinical course milder, with a lower risk for hospitalization and death.
With so many unvaccinated among us, new strains could still emerge.
With the recent surges in Asia and Europe, the end of the COVID-19 pandemic is still elusive, with the Stealth (BA.2) Omicron being 50-60 percent more rapidly transmissible and now the dominant virus.
I have been so used to masking the past two years that today I could not breathe comfortably (in my mind) without my mask, especially with these new surges.
If I could not avoid a crowd, I use a gaiter over my mask because I am a high-risk individual.
Let us continue to be vigilant and treat this virus with humility, not with arrogance or surrender.
Philip S. Chua, MD, FACS, FPCS, a Cardiac Surgeon Emeritus based in Northwest Indiana and Las Vegas, Nevada, is an international medical lecturer/author, Health Advocate, newspaper columnist, and Chairman of the Filipino United Network-USA, a 501(c)3 humanitarian foundation in the United States.
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