The trees are beginning to change colors, their vibrant red, orange and yellow leaves falling around us with each chilling breeze. Autumn is here, signaling the start of our third winter staying indoors with COVID-19. We are optimistic this year will be healthier than the last, when Omicron rapidly spread around the world, or the first COVID-19 winter, before vaccines were available and gatherings were discouraged. Health experts are predicting COVID-19 cases will start increasing next month, with the flu returning after a two-year lull.
While many of us are back to life as normal, COVID-19 is still killing about 400 people per day in the United States. It is still the third leading cause of death in the country behind heart disease and cancer.
Staying up to date on COVID-19 vaccinations and taking steps to protect yourself are the best defenses against severe COVID-19. You can also watch the community transmission and wastewater levels on our dashboard. When transmission is high, use that information when deciding whether or not to wear a mask in public, indoor settings or to avoid large indoor gatherings.
Many of us still have some level of immunity against severe disease, but viral transmission remains high. Generally, whenever a lot of people are gathered indoors, assume other respiratory illnesses are there too.
If you are at risk of severe COVID-19 illness, including being immunocompromised or over the age of 65, you should decide now on how you will access treatments if you are infected with COVID-19.
We are well-positioned to remain healthy this winter
- Updated bivalent booster doses are designed to induce antibodies for Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 as well as the original COVID-19 strain.
- Effective treatments are widely available, especially for those 65 and older.
- Prior infection and vaccinations provide some level of immunity and protection from COVID-19.
- Flu shots are available and are safe to receive at the same time as a COVID-19 shot.
- The updated booster dose has been authorized for emergency use for children ages 5-11.
What to expect this winter
Infectious diseases spread fast when people spend more time together, especially indoors. Watch for new cases of COVID-19 and the flu; the experts are forecasting reported cases will start to increase in November. We know the virus that causes COVID-19 mutates rapidly, meaning, it’s too early to confidently predict which variants and subvariants will claim the most cases this winter.
Past surges show us predicting future strains of COVID-19 is an imperfect science. The Delta variant represented almost 90% of cases last October. Omicron was not identified until late November in southern Africa. It then raced around the world, maybe faster than any virus in human history. Subvariants of Omicron have dominated ever since and still make up more than 98% of cases globally.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is already monitoring dozens of subvariants. Omicron BA.2.75.2, a descendant of BA.2 is “spreading quickly in India, Singapore and parts of Europe” and some of the reports might cause concern. According to a study in Sweden that has not yet been peer-reviewed, these strains appear to be highly effective at evading immunity and may also evade some monoclonal antibody treatments, including Evusheld. This study indicated Bebtelovimab may remain effective, but more research is needed. Another Omicron strain that is effective at evading immunity is BQ.1.1, a descendant of BA.5. Although these strains are incredibly contagious, they are not thought to cause more severe illness than other Omicron subvariants.
Something we can predict, watching to see if one of the strains WHO is monitoring will take over and dominate or if multiple strains will compete around the globe. It’s possible a new strain not yet identified will emerge this fall, as Omicron did last year.
Though it is nearly impossible to predict how the virus will behave this winter, our tools to limit the impact of COVID-19 remain the same.
- Wear a face mask in public indoor spaces.
- Maintain at least six feet of distance between yourself and others.
- Avoid large gatherings.
- Socialize outdoors.
- Get vaccinated and boosted as soon as you are eligible.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Minimize touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
- Stay home when you are sick.
- Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
- Clean frequently touched objects and surfaces regularly.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water