Two years since Covid was first confirmed in the US, the pandemic is worse than anyone imagined

People wait in line to be tested for COVID-19 at Union Station on January 7, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.

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A 35-year-old man returned to the US from Wuhan, China on January 15, 2020 and became ill with cough and fever.

He read a warning from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the outbreak of a new coronavirus in Wuhan and sought treatment at an urgent care clinic in Snohomish County, Washington four days later. there..

On January 21, CDC publicly confirmed that he has first known coronavirus case in the United States, although the agency later discovered the virus was to the West Coast as early as December after testing a blood sample for antibodies.

The man said he was don’t spend time at Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, where a cluster of early cases was identified in December. He was placed in the isolation unit at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Wash for observation.

After confirming the Washington state case, the CDC told the public it believes the risk “remains low at this time.” The CDC says there is growing evidence of person-to-person transmission of the virus, but “it’s not clear how easily this virus spreads between people.”

Then President Donald Trump told CNBC USA have it “completely under control.”

“It’s a guy from China. We’re controlling it. It’s going to be fine,” Trump told “Squawk Box” co-host Joe Kernen in an interview from the World Economic Forum. in Davos, Switzerland.

However, Dr Anthony Fauci will confirm the public’s worst fears on January 31: People can carry and spread the virus without showing any symptoms. Dr. Helen Chu’s research team at the Seattle Flu Study began examining genomic data from Wuhan. Chu said: “Using the flu study’s trove of swab samples, the team was able to identify another Covid case in a 15-year-old boy who had not recently traveled, suggesting it was spreading.” in the community.

In late February, a senior CDC official, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, warned that containing the virus at national borders was no longer feasible. Community spread will happen in the US, she said, and the central question is “how many people in this country are going to get very sick.”

In the two years since that first confirmed case, the virus has entered the United States with an intensity and duration few anticipated. The human toll is staggering, with more than 860,000 deaths and more than 69 million total infections. Hospitals across the country have been pushed to breakthrough levels with more than 4 million confirmed Covid patients hospitalized since August 2020, when the CDC began tracking hospitalizations.. Hospitalizations are an understatement because they do not include the wave of cases that first hit the United States in the spring of 2020 when hospitals were seized and testing inadequate.

Although the US now has an effective vaccine and treatment to fight Covid, the future course of the pandemic is uncertain as the virus mutates into new variants that are more contagious and have a higher risk of infection. can evade the protection of vaccines. The highly contagious omicron variant pushed infections and hospital admissions to record highs globally this month, a shock to a weary public looking to return to normalcy after a two-year shutdown. activities, cancel events, work from home, wear masks and get vaccinated.

The rapid evolution of the virus and the powerful waves of infection that will follow, from alpha to delta and omicron, have surprised many elected leaders, public health officials and scientists. . Dr Michael Osterholm, a leading epidemiologist, said Covid mutations are the big unknown that will determine the future course of the pandemic.

“We still don’t understand how these variants emerge and what they are likely to do,” Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy in Minnesota, told CNBC. “Look at how omicron caught us by surprise the global community with rapid transmission, immune evasion. Look at delta and all its impact on disease severity,” he said. “, he said.

As new infections began to decline in the spring of 2021 and a vaccine became widely available, the United States began to let its guard down. The CDC says people who are fully immunized do not need to wear masks indoors. chairperson Joe Biden announced on July 4 that the United States was closer than ever to declaring independence from the virus.

However, the delta variant was popular in the US at the time and would soon cause a new wave of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths as vaccination rates slow. Public health leaders have struggled for months to convince skeptics to inject the drug.

More than a year after the first vaccine was administered in the US, about 67% of Americans over the age of 5 are fully immunized, according to CDC data. Tens of millions of Americans are still unvaccinated, even though data shows they are safe and effective in preventing serious illness and death.

“We have no idea what January 2020, politics is divisive and the public reaction to this will be,” Osterholm said. “Who would have imagined the vaccine that hesitated and the hostility that ensued.”

Delta is more than twice as contagious as previous variants, and research indicates it causes more severe disease in unvaccinated people. CDC will reverse its loosened mask-wearing guidelines and encourage everyone, regardless of immunization status, to wear a mask indoors in public in areas where there is a significant potential for transmission as it spreads. in the plains.

Vaccines were successful when omicrons appeared in November. Although they still protect against severe illness and death, they are less effective at preventing infections from omicrons. Chu said the US has largely relied on vaccines to prevent transmission of the virus, without emphasizing the extensive testing and cover-up that are critical to controlling a variant like omicrons that can cause the virus to spread. immunity can be avoided.

“We now know that you can get infected multiple times, you can have breakthroughs in vaccines, and this virus will continue to mutate and continue to elude us for a while,” said Chu. long”.

Katriona Shea co-led a team of researchers who put together models to predict the trajectory of the pandemic. In their latest update, the wave of omicrons and hospitalizations will likely peak before the end of the month. However, their most optimistic forecast suggests between 16,000 and 98,000 omicron wave deaths as of April 2.

Currently, the US is reporting an average of more than 736,000 new infections per day, according to the seven-day average of Johns Hopkins data analyzed by CNBC. While this is still much higher than in previous episodes, the average number of daily infections has fallen by 8% from the previous week. The US is reporting more than 1,800 deaths a day, averaging over seven days.

“It is really disappointing and tragic to see people die from a vaccine-preventable disease,” said Chu.

The impact of omicrons on the future course of the pandemic is unclear. In the classical view, viruses evolved to become more contagious and less severe, making it easier to find new hosts.

“There’s a lot of reason to believe that’s not true because the jump to the omicron is so large, which suggests that there’s a lot of room for it to change,” said Shea, a professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University. significantly changed”. Omicron has more than 30 mutations on mutant proteins associated with human cells. The shots target the mutated protein, and the mutations make it harder for the antibodies produced by the vaccine to stop infection.

Doctors and infectious disease experts in South Africa, where omicrons were first identified, say this variation peaks and begins to decline rapidly, exhibiting a significantly different trajectory from other previous strains. The The researchers also said ICU admission and mortality rates at Steve Biko Academic Hospital were lower, indicating a reduction in severity.

“If this pattern continues and iterates globally, we are likely to see a complete dissociation in case and mortality rates, suggesting that Omicrons could be a herald of the end of the period.” epidemic of the Covid pandemic, ushering in its endemic phase,” the researchers wrote.

According to Jennie Lavine, a computational investigative biologist at the biotech company Karius, over time the virus can become less disruptive to society, and it becomes milder as immunity is higher. in a limited population with severe disease.

However, the head of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned earlier this week that the pandemic is “not over yet”, warning that new variants are likely to emerge under The omicron form quickly spread around the world.

“Everybody wants to come to this so-called endemic. I still don’t know what that means,” Osterholm said, noting that he has 46 years of experience as an epidemiologist. “With variations, we can go through a period of relatively low activity, like we’ve seen in many parts of the world, and then a new variant can change all that in the future.” We don’t really know our future yet.”

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