Pandemic-weary Americans plan for summer despite COVID surge
HONOLULU (AP) — A high school dance in Hawaii where masked dancers weren’t allowed to touch each other. A return to virtual city council meetings in a Colorado town after the mayor and others tested positive following an in-person session. A mask mandate reinstated at skilled nursing facilities in Los Angeles County after 22 new outbreaks in a single week.
A surge of COVID-19 is underway and is beginning to cause disruption as the school year winds down and Americans prepare for summer vacation. However, many people have returned to their pre-pandemic routines and plans, which often involve travel.
The number of cases is as high as it has been since mid-February and those numbers are likely a major undercount due to unreported positive home test results and asymptomatic infections. Earlier this month, an influential modeling group from the University of Washington in Seattle estimated that only 13% of cases were reported to US health authorities.
Hospitalizations are also on the rise, and more than a third of the US population lives in areas considered high risk by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Northeast was the hardest hit.
Yet vaccinations have stalled and the country’s elected officials seem reluctant to impose further restrictions on a public ready to move on even as the US death toll topped 1 million under 2½ after the start of the epidemic.
“People are probably underestimating the prevalence of COVID,” said Crystal Watson, public health officer at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security’s Coronavirus Resource Center. “I think there are a lot more viruses out there than we recognize, and so people are much, much more likely than they anticipate to be exposed and infected.”
A major measure of the pandemic — the seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in the United States — has soared over the past two weeks, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The figure was around 76,000 on May 9 and jumped to nearly 109,000 on Monday. It was the highest since mid-February, when the omicron-fueled surge was fading.
Deaths are still falling and hospital intensive care units are not overwhelmed as they were at other times during the pandemic, likely because vaccinations and immunity from people who have already had the disease maintain many less severe cases.
“The nature of the disease has changed. Two years ago, I was seeing a steady stream of severe cases of pneumonia. We are now in a situation where people should be able to avoid this outcome by taking advantage of vaccines, pre-exposure prophylaxis (for high risks) and early antiviral therapy,” said Dr Jonathan Dworkin, a clinical physician specializing in infectious diseases. in Hawaii, said via email.
In Hawaii, which once had one of the lowest infection, hospitalization and death rates in the country, new cases are rising among the state’s 1.4 million residents.
With cases climbing for eight straight weeks, Hawaii has the second-highest infection rate of any state, behind Rhode Island. But because positive home test results aren’t counted in official data, Hawaii’s health department estimates the number of cases is actually five or six times higher.
Despite its influx, visitors have been flocking to Hawaii’s beaches, especially in recent months.
Yaling Fisher, owner of Hawaii Aloha Travel, said bookings to the islands have not slowed during the surge. On the contrary, they have increased.
“Even now, we’re still busy,” she said. “We don’t see any cancellations.”
Samantha Hanberg, who was in Hawaii this week with her newly married husband, said the couple left their masks at home in California when they went on vacation. She said she contracted COVID-19 early in the pandemic and was then fully vaccinated, so she too felt safe.
“Nobody wants to get sick, but it’s definitely not at the forefront of my thought process anymore,” she said, munching on shaved ice on the beach in Waikiki. “I’m at the point now where I just want to get back to living and enjoying life, and not being so worried.”
Authorities initially shut down Hawaii’s tourism industry by requiring all incoming passengers to quarantine. They moved to a testing requirement and then to a vaccination exemption before dropping all restrictions in March.
Hawaii was the last state in the country to drop its mask mandate, though it remains the only state to require all public school students to wear masks indoors — a rule that will remain in effect throughout summer and maybe until the next school year.
Nearly two years after California Governor Gavin Newsom imposed the first statewide stay-at-home order, the state officially transitioned to an “endemic” approach in February. Like Hawaii and many other states, its weekly infection rate has increased significantly lately.
The new surge has led Pacific Grove and Berkeley school districts to reinstate their indoor mask mandates, while an outbreak at a Northern California long-term care facility sickened at least 12 people on Friday .
Some Northeastern school districts have also restarted their mask mandates, including those in Philadelphia and Providence, Rhode Island.
However, New York, which was once the US epicenter of the pandemic, doesn’t seem likely to follow suit. The city is facing a further surge in cases, but Mayor Eric Adams has all but ruled out bringing back a citywide mask mandate unless hospitals are inundated again.
The city’s school district has dropped its practice of closing classrooms if multiple students test positive, simply recommends that masks be worn and even dropped its requirement that students must be vaccinated to attend prom.
Dazio reported from Los Angeles.