Rise in COVID cases sparks concern, but expert urges calm amid latest surge

COVID-19 cases are on the rise again in the D.C. area and across the Northeastern U.S., driven by a subvariant of omicron, and now the world is facing the possibility of even newer mutations of the virus.

But one expert says we shouldn’t be alarmed by this latest surge, just yet.

“Over the last several weeks, there’s been a significant increase in the number of cases of what we call the BA. 2 variant, which is the new variant of omicron that’s dominating the United States,” CBS News medical correspondent Dr. David Agus told WTOP.

“But I think the important point is that there is no increase in the hospitalizations in most of the cities, and that is because there is significant immunity from vaccination and from prior infection, and that is preventing serious illness,” said Agus, who is also a professor of medicine and engineering at the University of Southern California.

Agus said that with more people doing home tests, the number of positive COVID cases is probably far higher than the official numbers, but what matters most are hospitalizations.

“When hospitals are full, we can’t care for cancer patients or heart patients or others, and the whole community suffers. And so that is the metric we have to follow as a country, and it makes total sense,” he said.

“I think we’re nearing the end of what we call a pandemic in that the virus isn’t dominating us,” he added. “That being said, what we’re worried about is that this virus is changing daily, and we’re worried a new variant can come along and evade the vaccines and evade the immunity that we have.”

Those worries are being amplified by the discovery of two new subvariants — BA. 4 and BA. 5 — that have appeared in Africa and Europe.

Agus said that so far there’s been no evidence that these new subvariants are evading immunity or that they’re more contagious or deadlier than BA.2.

“And so we’re certainly not right now on edge over these, but it’s something that we’re paying attention to,” he said.

“Over a million years of evolution, the human genome changed 1%. This virus can change 1% on a day. So it is changing. So it is in our interest … that everyone on the globe be vaccinated for COVID-19.”

That’s why Agus criticized recent moves in Congress to strip international aid from a $10 billion COVID response bill that lawmakers have been trying to hash out.

“Because if a variant happens, someone gets on a plane [and] can unknowingly transmit here,” Agus said. “We are a mobile world, and so we are a flat world in that regard. And so it really matters to each of us what goes on globally.”

Not only should the U.S. work to ensure that the rest of the world is vaccinated, it should do the same thing at home, where only 65% of Americans are fully vaccinated.

That figure doesn’t include boosters, which Agus said are critical as the coronavirus continues to mutate and vaccine immunity wanes.

Contrary to some misconceptions, Agus said this waning immunity is not a sign that the science behind the vaccines has failed.

“The virus is changing, and therefore we have to keep immunity at a very high level,” he said. “So that third or fourth booster I think are critical for all of us to do that.”

Anna Gawel

Anna Gawel joined WTOP in 2020 and works in both the radio and digital departments. Anna Gawel has spent much of her career as the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat, which has been the flagship publication of D.C.’s diplomatic community for over 25 years.

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