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Illustration: PGN

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What you need to know

  • COVID-19 hospitalization numbers are at the highest they’ve been since February 2022.
  • The current surge is likely a result of holiday gathering and travel, waning immunity, and low booster uptake. 
  • Bivalent boosters and high-quality masks are two of our best tools against the new Omicron subvariant XBB.1.5.

The world is in much better shape entering the new year than in previous pandemic years. But we are not in the clear. In the U.S., reported COVID-19 case numbers are not showing significant changes, but hospitalizations are hitting their highest levels in nearly a year, with the virus posing a particular risk to older adults.

How concerned should I be about COVID-19 right now?

Several COVID-19 indicators have been raising alarms in recent weeks, reaching levels not seen since last winter. For one, average COVID-19 hospitalization numbers reached 47,000 last week, the highest they’ve been since February 2022. The COVID-19 virus is also on the rise in wastewater. In the Northeast, COVID-19 virus wastewater levels reached their highest point since January 2022. Test positivity and deaths have also been on the upward trend. None of these numbers are near last winter’s peak, but they are still concerning.

What is driving the current wave?

The current surge is likely a result of holiday gathering and travel, waning immunity, and low booster uptake. Less than 18 percent of adults have received a bivalent booster. Uptake among people ages 65 and older—the most vulnerable age group—is only at 38 percent, which is especially worrisome given that older adults are experiencing the steepest increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations. The spread of new Omicron subvariant XBB.1.5 may be another driver of the current wave.

How transmissible and severe is XBB.1.5?

Based on what we know so far, XBB.1.5 seems to be the most transmissible COVID-19 strain yet and is on track to become the dominant strain in the U.S. It is already the most prevalent strain in the Northeast, making up around 70 percent of circulating COVID-19 viruses. It’s unclear whether XBB.1.5 is more or less severe than previous variants, but it’s still important for everyone to take precautions to prevent infection. People who are at high risk of severe disease—including older adults, immunocompromised individuals, and people with certain medical conditions—should be especially careful, as several COVID-19 treatments are unlikely to work against XBB.1.5 and other circulating Omicron subvariants.

How can I stay safe during the current wave?

The bivalent booster is one of our best tools against XBB.1.5. Although it’s still unclear how effective the updated booster is against XBB.1.5, being up to date on your vaccinations ensures that your immune system is the most prepared it can be against the virus. It’s also important to take advantage of masks, tests, and ventilation tools to reduce your chance of infection or spreading the virus. You should continue to prioritize avoiding infection, as long COVID remains a risk, even for people who are not at high risk of severe disease.