By Elizabeth Agnvall, AARP, August 2023
7 things to know about the Covid Summer Surge. You may be done with the virus, but latest resurgence shows it’s not done with us.
Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that a summer surge of COVID-19 is still going strong and hospitalizations on the rise. As a variety of new strains circulate, including EG.5, the dominant variant in the U.S. also known as Eris, it’s an opportune time to catch up on the latest expert advice for navigating the current outbreak.
We spoke with Paul Sax, clinical director of the division of infectious diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, about the recent surge in infections and what the public needs to know to stay safe. Here’s what he told AARP.
1. The latest surge is relatively mild
Here’s the good news: Although every summer has brought a spike in cases since COVID-19 appeared, this is a moderate surge and not nearly as bad as the delta summer surge of 2021. The reason: Most of the cases have been mild. “There are exceptions, of course, but the disease severity on a per-case basis is much lower than it used to be,” Sax says.
2. COVID doesn’t have a season
Flu season typically hits in fall and winter and subsides in spring and summer. The coronavirus hasn’t settled into that pattern, at least not yet. Whereas influenza cases are rare in the summer, coronavirus cases don’t seem to ebb and flow as much with the seasons. “Whether this is going to be the case forever, or whether we’re going to have more seasonality with COVID going away completely in the summer is unknown,” Sax says.
3. Summer heat waves may fuel infections
Experts say influenza spreads in winter because people tend to spend more time indoors to get out of the cold. But people also don’t want to be outside when scorching temps rise into the 90s and above. Air-conditioned restaurants, gyms, bars and places of worship are great escapes from the heat, but they also can be COVID breeding grounds.
4. Older COVID tests can detect current strains
Older COVID tests will work on current strains, as long as the tests haven’t expired. In some cases, the Food and Drug Administration has extended the expiration date, so check this FDA list of authorized tests to find out. Sax says if you do use an expired test, they are more likely to show that you don’t have COVID when you do. “If you test positive on a test that’s expired, it’s probably correct,” he says, although “you should try to use tests that are not past their expiration date.”
He adds that home tests are still not as sensitive as polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests. So if you are having symptoms and you test negative on the first day, go ahead and take a second test on day two. “Sometimes it takes a few days for the test to turn positive.” If you’re still not sure and are having symptoms, get a PCR test at a pharmacy or clinic.
5. If you have COVID, consider Paxlovid
Sax says he recommends the antiviral medication Paxlovid for most COVID patients over 50 who have symptoms. “There is another treatment available called molnupiravir, but actually, Paxlovid appears to be more effective,” he notes. Although there were previously shortages of Paxlovid, the medication is plentiful and still free from the federal government for now.
“I think the hardest thing with Paxlovid is that it interacts with many medications, and as we get older, we’re on more and more medications. But by and large, most of these medication interactions can be managed by experienced clinicians.” So make sure to work with your health care provider before going on Paxlovid. Sax says he especially recommends Paxlovid for those who are over 80, those who are immunocompromised and those who have multiple medical problems.
6. Test positive? Isolate for five days, then mask for five days
Even though many cases are mild, this recommendation hasn’t changed with the current surge. If you have symptoms of a respiratory illness, stay at home until symptoms improve. “That’s much harder to do if you’re now on day four or five and you feel 100 percent well, like you’ve completely recovered,” he says. The recommendation is still to isolate for five days and then wear a mask in public for another five days. “I do understand that people are very tired of wearing masks, but I think that for people who actually have a diagnosis of COVID, that is the compassionate and right thing to do.”
7. Hold out for a fall booster
The next booster is expected to be released by late September. Because it’s already August, Sax recommends that most people wait — unless a doctor recommends otherwise. “The booster that is coming out is more tailored to the circulating variants right now than the one received last fall,” he says. He advises against getting a vaccine now and then getting another one when the next booster comes out, because he recommends a three-month waiting period between shots. So, he says, most people should wait for the fall booster and get it the same day as the flu vaccine. “I’ve recommended that to most of my patients at this point.”