Whether there will be another COVID-19 surge depends on a person’s location, the viruses circulating in their area, and many other factors. It is not always possible to predict when cases will rise.
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This article examines the likelihood of another COVID-19 surge, including the factors that raise the risk and signs that another wave is on the way. It also discusses whether COVID-19 will get less severe with time.
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There are different ways of defining a COVID-19 surge. It could refer to the number of overall cases, the number of people in the hospital, or both.
Medical News Today reached out to Jonathan S. Dordick, PhD, Institute Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering and Co-Director of the Rensselaer-Mount Sinai Center for Engineering and Precision Medicine, for his opinion.
“A surge is simply an increase in the number of cases over an average of cases over the preceding couple of months,” Dordick said. “If the increased number of cases is statistically significant and grows over a period of 1–2 months, doctors would consider that a surge.”
Experts also define a surge from a public health perspective. “A surge would be the increased burden on our hospitals that would result in diminished care,” he added. “That would be the definition of a medical surge.”
Opinions on whether there will be significant COVID-19 surges in the future vary. Dordick does expect them.
“Instead of a pandemic, COVID is in the process of becoming endemic, which by definition means that it will have surges,” he said. “The serious nature will be high over the next few years until it is firmly endemic. Of course, influenza is endemic, and we know how serious that actually is.”
When a virus is endemic, this means it is common in a geographic area.
In contrast, Thomas Eiseman, MD, Vice President of Clinical Affairs and Associate Medical Director for Medcor, has a slightly different projection.
“There will likely be smaller spikes of infections in the future, requiring annual or more frequent booster vaccinations,” Eiseman said.
“COVID-19 will likely circulate at current or diminishing levels for the next several to 5 years. Beyond that, it is more likely to be replaced by a different virus than mutate into a more deadly variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.”
The following factors may raise the risk of COVID-19 surges.
Viruses can change, or mutate, in unpredictable ways. This happens because viruses evolve, with more successful viruses overtaking others.
SARS-CoV-2 has mutated several times since its emergence in 2019. Some of the newer variants cause milder illness than older variants.
However, many variants have also adapted in ways that allow them to spread more easily. Some new variants can also evade natural and vaccine-induced immunity. This can result in surges in COVID-19 cases.
Seasons and weather
There are several explanations for this. SARS-CoV-2 is more stable at lower temperatures and lower humidity, for example.
Additionally, high pressure weather systems in winter can produce stagnant air, while low wind speeds decrease the dispersion of air pollutants that can carry the virus.
Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 happens mainly through exposure to respiratory droplets. People can reduce their chances of getting the virus by avoiding exposure to these droplets. For example, many people wear masks, stay away from those who are sick, or make sure rooms are well-ventilated.
However, if people stop taking preventive measures, it gives the virus more opportunity to spread. If many people in a location change their behavior, it may cause a spike in COVID-19 cases.
Immunity to viruses can develop in two ways: through medications or vaccines, or through contracting the virus and surviving.
If 70–90% of a population develops immunity, it is known as herd immunity. When this happens, a person has a lower risk of contracting COVID-19, even if they have never had the condition before.
Conversely, if herd immunity does not develop, the risk to individuals is higher. As a result, communities with lower overall immunity to SARS-CoV-2 may be more likely to experience a surge.
“Signs that a spike is coming involve pockets of infections in unusual places, as well as pockets of infection at unusual times of the year,” said Eiseman.
“Vigilant monitoring of COVID around the globe and then acting quickly and appropriately are the best ways to prevent a future outbreak. It is almost guaranteed that an annual vaccination, much like influenza, will be available in the future.”
Dordick expects immunity to rise as public exposure to COVID-19 continues. “My own belief is that as we continue to be exposed to COVID over time, our immunity reinforces,” he said.
“There are four common circulating coronaviruses,“ Dordick continues. “They make us sick but rarely lead to hospitalization, although they may be medically dangerous in individuals with weakened immunity and the elderly.”
“SARS-CoV-2 will be moving closer to becoming the fifth [most] common circulating coronavirus. So, the virus itself may not get less severe, but our immunity should increase. However, it is important to emphasize that we have not reached this point yet.”
Experts cannot say for sure whether COVID-19 will go away on its own. “I think it will remain with us, but more like a common cold,” said Dordick.
Although COVID-19 remains a public health concern, there are things people can do to reduce their chance of getting it or spreading it to others.
- Staying up-to-date with COVID-19 vaccines: Although the vaccines do not always prevent a COVID-19 infection, they significantly reduce the likelihood of getting a severe case.
- Avoiding exposure: Avoid contact with people who may have COVID-19 as much as possible.
- Washing the hands: Wash the hands thoroughly with soap and warm water after going outside, before eating, and after using the bathroom.
- Improving ventilation: This can involve opening windows, spending more time outside, or using air filters.
- Getting tested: If a person suspects that they have COVID-19, they should get tested as soon as possible. The local health authority will have information on how to do this. A person should not go to a medical facility without calling ahead first.
- Staying home: When an individual suspects or knows they have COVID-19, they should stay home and away from others for
at least 5 daysfrom the date their symptoms began or the day they tested positive if they have no symptoms.
There is no way to tell for sure whether there will be another COVID-19 surge globally or in a specific location. If an increase in incidence occurs in an unusual place or at an unusual time of year, it may indicate that a spike is on the way.
Some experts believe that because of increased immunity, SARS-CoV-2 may cause less severe cases of COVID-19 over time.