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Summer ends in the shadow of new COVID-19 threat

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Experts recommend masking once again as COVID returns in 2023.
Sergey Dementyev/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Experts recommend masking once again as COVID returns in 2023.

There was a time during the pandemic where a lot of us didn’t go to the grocery store, remember that?

It really was the safest approach for shoppers and for those of us who cared about the health and safety of the essential workers at the store — order your groceries online. Pick them up or have them delivered.

In 2021, we started going back to the store, but in our masks. A lot of us did, anyway. My mask protected you and your mask protected me. Not everybody masked — but a lot of us did. I did. For years. 

Then spring of 2023 came. COVID numbers were consistently low and the public health emergency ended. The pandemic wasn’t over — it still isn't — but the public health emergency was over, and it felt safe to unmask at the store.

The host of this program recently visited an HEB grocery store on the North Side of San Antonio. Almost everyone was unmasked — except for a young man named Dijay Madrigal.

"Like literally today is the first day that I wore my mask, too," he said. "My entire family got it yesterday. So I'm doing the shopping for them right now."

Madrigal said now that he’s back in a mask, he’s going to be wearing one for a while.

Dijay Madrigal shops at an HEB on the North Side of San Antoni.
Marc Isaacs
Texas Public Radio
Dijay Madrigal shops at an HEB on the North Side of San Antonio.

"Oh, probably well into after winter, because of flu season and all the other stuff, you might as well just stay safe," he said. "I don't have PTO cto over myself, you know? So I'm going to stay as safe as possible and just keep wearing masks and social distance."

Over the last few weeks, something concerning has been happening. In San Antonio and nationwide, COVID cases have been creeping, then jumping, up. But a COVID expert said not to call it a surge just yet.

Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious diseases specialist who worked on the Biden administration transition team on COVID policy, said big percentages can still be small numbers.

“So if you're starting at a very low level, even a 200% increase might not be very high," she said. "What we're seeing right now is about 10,000 or so hospital admissions a week we have seen more than two to four times that level of hospital admissions from COVID at other points in the pandemic.”

That’s 10,000 hospitalizations nationwide in the week ending Aug 5. During the same week last year there were nearly 43,000 hospitalizations.

"I do anticipate we may well see a surge this fall and winter, but I think we should choose our words carefully because it's a bit like the boy who cried wolf. If you say there's a surge when there's not a surge, when there really is one, people won't listen," she said. "And I think we've already seen a lot of erosion and trust in public health."

Gounder said the first way to protect yourself is to get vaccinated.

"One group that we're also seeing in ERs and in the hospital right now increasingly is infants from COVID. And very few infants are vaccinated. Less than 5% of infants nationwide are vaccinated against COVID. And so that's a real gap," she said.

"The groups that are highest priority for getting boosters are the elderly, especially if you're over 75 people who are immunocompromised, pregnant women, people with underlying medical conditions, especially if it's a heart or lung condition and people living in nursing homes."

A new booster awaits approval from the FDA. That should come in late September. Who should get the shot?

"The CDC has not weighed in yet on who should get the COVID booster or even who will be eligible for the COVID booster," she said. "I think, big picture, if you're eligible and you want to have that extra protection against infection for at least a couple of months, you would certainly benefit from getting a booster."

The vaccine is made to target omicron subvariant XBB but Gounder says it should still be effective against the current dominant variant, Eris, also an omicron subvariant.

Public health experts are also watching a new omicron subvariant, and this one is highly mutated. Ba.2.86 has been detected in four people in four different countries, including the U.S.

"Then, of course, in addition to vaccines, there are other things we can be doing. Masks do work. If you're in a crowded public setting, you may want to pull out your masks again, especially this fall, as we head into more transmission season," she said. "I still wear a mask when I'm on an airplane or in an airport or when I'm in a crowded theater. You know, it's dark. You're just sitting there watching a movie. There's there's nothing to lose. So I think masks are still an important tool."

Gounder also recommends testing when possible and making use of HEPA air filtration systems.

"And they're not just about COVID. They help reduce the risk of flu or RSV, or of other viral respiratory infections." she said. "In some parts of the country. We're seeing a lot of wildfire smoke and other kinds of pollution that can also be harmful, especially if somebody has asthma or harder lung disease. And so it's actually a good investment in your health to have those around the home."

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