Our pandemic winter: Stories on what to expect

This week, two of the outlets that I consider to be among the most reliable COVID-19 news sources published stories on our coming pandemic winter. Obviously, you should read both pieces in full, but here are my takeaways.

The first story comes from The Atlantic’s science desk, with a triple-star byline including Katherine J. Wu, Ed Yong, and Sarah Zhang.

This piece focuses on the changing role of vaccination in protecting the U.S. from COVID-19. After a few months of encouraging data, suggesting that vaccines could protect us against coronavirus infection and transmission, we are now back to using COVID-19 vaccines for their initial purpose: preventing severe disease and death. As we see higher numbers of breakthrough cases, we can take comfort in the fact that those cases will rarely lead to hospitalization or death. (Though the risk of Long COVID after vaccination is less known.)

The Atlantic’s article also explains who is now most at risk of COVID-19, and how that risk may shift in the coming months. Right now, unvaccinated children face high risk, especially if they live in communities where most of the adults aren’t vaccinated. But that won’t always be the case:

Relative risk will keep shifting, even if the virus somehow stops mutating and becomes a static threat. (It won’t.) Our immune systems’ memories of the coronavirus, for instance, could wane—possibly over the course of years, if immunization against similar viruses is a guide. People who are currently fully vaccinated may eventually need boosters. Infants who have never encountered the coronavirus will be born into the population, while people with immunity die. Even the vaccinated won’t all look the same: Some, including people who are moderately or severely immunocompromised, might never respond to the shots as well as others.

At the end of the article, the writers touch on variants. Delta is now the world’s major concern, but future variants might develop new mutations and pose new dangers. Yet the writers say that any variant “can be stopped through the combined measures of vaccines, masks, distancing, and other measures that cut the conduits they need to travel.”

The second “pandemic winter” story comes from ace STAT News reporter Helen Branswell. Branswell goes into more detail about potential variant scenarios, outlining what Delta may do and how other mutations may arise as the weather gets colder.

Some modeling efforts suggest that COVID-19 case numbers may stay low once the Delta wave ends, Branswell reports, because the majority of Americans are now fully vaccinated or have some immunity from a prior infection. But if another dangerous variant comes along, we could be in trouble. Still, if cases go up again, we won’t see as many hospitalizations or deaths as we did last winter, thanks to the vaccines.

I personally take comfort in this quotation from computational biologist Trevor Bedford:

“It is likely that we’ll see some wave,” Bedford said. “I would like to think it’s very unlikely to be as big as it was last year.”

Because Delta is causing the vast majority of the world’s COVID-19 cases right now, Branswell reports, future variants would likely arise from Delta. That could mean even more transmissibility or challenges to the human immune system. There’s a lot of uncertainty involved in trying to predict mutations, though. Branswell points out:

Early in the pandemic, coronavirus experts confidently opined that this family of viruses mutates far more slowly than, say, influenza, and major changes weren’t likely to undermine efforts to control SARS-2. But no one alive had watched a new coronavirus cycle its way through hundreds of millions of people before.

Branswell’s story also spends time explaining the potential pressures that COVID-19 could put on the healthcare system if combined with flu or other respiratory viruses. Healthcare workers may need to distinguish COVID-19 cases from flu cases, then treat both with similar equipment.

The story makes a pretty good argument for getting your flu shot now, if it’s available to you. I got mine last week.

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