A cotton swab is held in front of a person's nose.
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What you need to know

  • COVID-19 cases are rising in nearly all U.S. states, averaging more than 100,000 cases each day. This is likely an undercount as more people take at-home rapid tests.
  • Use the CDC’s community levels tool to track your county’s COVID-19 risk level and find recommendations for protective measures.
  • Consider masking indoors and testing more frequently, especially if you have any symptoms. 

The current COVID-19 surge in the U.S. seems relatively mild when compared to the number of cases seen in the previous Omicron wave. But experts are warning that this is not the full picture. To understand the true state of the pandemic, we have to look beyond case counts.

What do the numbers tell us?

About one-quarter of counties in the U.S. now have a COVID-19 risk level of medium or high, according to the CDC’s community levels tool, which makes evaluations based on both case counts and hospitalization numbers.

Nationwide case counts have been rising for about two months now, increasing threefold since early April. Although nearly all states are now recording an uptick, the Northeast and Midwest have been particularly hard hit. In much of those two regions, daily cases have surpassed the levels seen during the peak of last summer’s Delta surge. 

Hospitalizations are also on an upward trend, rising by 30 percent over the last two weeks. Still, hospitalization numbers remain far lower than the levels seen in any previous surge. This can be attributed to the fact that most of the U.S. population now has some level of immunity against COVID-19 that protects against severe illness.

Why is a surge happening? 

The BA.2 Omicron subvariant and its descendant BA.2.12.1 are responsible for the present surge. Both are more transmissible than previous versions of the virus, though they do not seem to be more severe than the original Omicron strain. 

While people who were previously infected by Omicron are unlikely to get reinfected by BA.2, this may not be the case for BA.2.12.1. Some preliminary data suggests that BA.2.12.1 has the ability to evade immunity and lead to reinfection, particularly among people with prior Omicron infections.

What are the numbers missing?

Experts warn that case counts do not show the full impact of the current surge. With more people taking at-home rapid tests and fewer mass testing sites, recorded COVID-19 cases are almost definitely an undercount. This is why it’s important to look beyond these numbers and to understand the broader context. 

Wastewater surveillance data can often predict where the virus is spreading. Across the country, wastewater surveillance sites have detected more COVID-19 viruses in the environment. Test positivity rates can also provide additional context since they factor in the total number of tests recorded. Right now, more than one in 10 recorded tests are coming back positive, compared to about 2 percent in late March.

Should we be concerned?

States and cities have largely decided not to reimpose mask mandates, but data tells us that we are in fact in the middle of another significant COVID-19 surge. It’s also possible that the new Omicron subvariants are spreading faster than our testing systems are detecting.

Most of us have some sort of immunity against the virus, either from vaccination, prior infection, or both. This reduces the chance of severe illness, but may no longer prevent infection, as the newest variants have shown signs of being able to evade this first line of defense. In order to stay protected, make sure to stay up to date on your COVID-19 vaccinations, including first and second boosters, if applicable. Vaccines remain our best armor against the virus and its variants. 

For guidance on protective measures like mask-wearing and testing, use the CDC’s community levels tool, which tracks COVID-19 risk level in each county. However, the CDC’s recommendations should be viewed as the baseline for what you can do to stay protected. If anything, the agency is underestimating COVID-19 risk since its evaluations are based on case counts, which no longer show the full picture, and hospitalization numbers, which tend to trail an increase in cases.

As long as the pandemic continues, and especially if cases are rising in your area, it’s never a bad idea to wear a mask, test frequently, and do what you can to improve ventilation in indoor settings.