The calm before the storm? COVID winter peak could be coming to CT

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Connecticut’s long-awaited COVID-19 surge has yet to materialize, according to state figures, but experts still say they are bracing for a spike in the coming months.

“We can rejoice in the calm because we know storms are coming,” said Nathan Grubaugh, professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health. “We know there will be an increase this winter, but hopefully most of it can now be managed, unlike last winter.”

So far, Connecticut’s trends look relatively encouraging. Recorded COVID cases recently hit their lowest level since April, while the state’s seven-day test positivity rate fell below 9% after hitting 12% over the summer. Although wastewater monitoring revealed some signs of increased transmission in the northeastthe totals seen in New Haven remain relatively low.

According to an estimate by Yale and Harvard researchers, Connecticut’s transmission rate is as low as it has been since February.

“Just looking at the data now, hopefully things are relatively calm,” Grubaugh said. “It’s been, in a good way, a boring few months on our local data.”

Still, Grubaugh said, it’s almost inevitable that Connecticut will see an uptick as the weather cools and more activity moves indoors, as has happened the previous two years. Whether Connecticut experiences a full surge or a more modest bump will depend on many variables, experts say.

“Some of the factors are going to be related to changes in behavior – congregating indoors – some of them may be related to weather conditions, and some of them may be related to the emergence of variants,” said said Dr. David Banach, hospital epidemiologist at UConn Health.

Already, two subvariants of omicron, BQ.1 and BQ.1.1, have caused spikes in some parts of the world, leading Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to declare the strains “fairly troublesome”. Experts say BQ.1.1 has an estimated 15% growth advantage over BA.5, the currently dominant variant, raising concerns that the new strain could fuel a winter spike.

Grubaugh, however, said he considers it too early to sound the alarm about BQ.1 or BQ.1.1, which currently accounts for about 7% of sequenced cases in New England, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We have to watch them, and we do,” he said. “But do we need to panic about them? Does anyone need to change their life right now to prepare for this? I think right now, no.”

While President Joe Biden said last month that “the pandemic is over”, experts say the risk of COVID persists – and is likely to worsen as the weather cools and activity moves on the inside. In Connecticut, more than 400 people remain hospitalized with the disease and the state continues to report between 15 and 25 deaths per week.

Although Governor Ned Lamont has often downplayed the importance of COVID in recent months, he refused to go as far as Biden did in declaring the old news of the pandemic.

“COVID is not over, but we have the ability to protect ourselves, so it’s a completely different place than [where] we were two and a half years ago,” Lamont said this week.

One problem, experts say, is that although Americans have more tools to protect themselves against COVID-19 than before, relatively few people seem eager to take advantage of them. Masks have become scarce, and as of last week, less than 300,000 Connecticut residents had received a bivalent booster, out of more than 2.7 million eligible people.

Banach said he encourages patients to get the new boosters, which are available to all vaccinated Americans ages 5 and older, especially if they’re at risk for serious illness.

“Reminders have been shown to be effective in reducing the impact of COVID, particularly serious infections and hospitalizations,” he said. “The greatest impact will be felt in the elderly and those with risk factors.”

Dr. Manisha Juthani, Commissioner of the Public Health Department of CT, notes that the new recalls provide protection against BQ.1, BQ1.1 and BF.7 variants since they are all sublines of BA.5 . and are genetically very similar.

For Dr. Ulysses Wu, chief epidemiologist at Hartford HealthCare, residents should remain vigilant about COVID-19 regardless of the type of variant circulating.

“It shouldn’t affect the public any differently because COVID is still and always will be, to some extent, dangerous for people,” he said. “And because of that, they would have to take exactly the same precautions with those variants as they would have with omicron and as they would have with delta.”

Ultimately, experts say there is no accurate prediction of COVID-19. There were times when the disease was supposed to increase and didn’t, and there were times when transmission was supposed to drop and increase instead.

The next few months, Grubaugh said, remain “to be determined.”

“We’re still in the middle of a pandemic that we’ve never really followed in real time like this before,” he said. “We don’t really know what’s going to happen next.”

Dan Haar contributed to this report.

Alex Putterman can be reached at [email protected] Abby Weiss can be contacted at [email protected]

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