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Not over yet: Late-summer COVID wave brings warning of more to come

A late-summer wave of coronavirus infections has touched schools, workplaces and local government, as experts warned the public to brace for even more COVID-19 spread this fall and winter.

Hospitalizations increased 24% in a two-week period ending Aug. 12, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Wastewater monitoring suggests a recent rise in COVID infections in the West and Northeast. In communities across the United States, outbreaks have occurred in recent weeks at preschools, summer camps and office buildings.

Public health officials said that the latest increase in COVID hospitalizations is still relatively small and the vast majority of the sick are experiencing mild symptoms that are comparable to a cold or the flu. And most Americans, more than three months after the Biden administration allowed the 2020 declaration calling the coronavirus a public health emergency to expire, have shown little willingness to return to the days of frequent testing, mask wearing and isolation.

But for Americans who have become accustomed to feeling the nation has moved beyond COVID, the current wave could be a rude reminder that the emerging New Normal is not a world without the virus.

“We’re in almost the best place we’ve been in the pandemic since it began,” said Michael T. Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “But we are caught in the very uncomfortable area of having left the fog of the pandemic war and trying to understand what the sunrise on a normal post-COVID world looks like.”

In cities across the country, the remnants of coronavirus restrictions still remain, even if they are no longer observed. Retail stores may have signs in the windows requesting that patrons wear masks, but no one inside is wearing them. Years-old stickers asking customers to stand 6 feet apart in line are faded, worn and ignored. The occasional storefronts in major cities advertise free COVID-19 testing, though the spaces inside are empty.

And the virus is still disrupting work, school and politics: A COVID outbreak tied to a City Council meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, this month left more than a dozen people infected, including council members, city employees and at least one reporter. One of the people who tested positive for COVID, Freddie O’Connell, a City Council member who is in a Sept. 14 runoff election for mayor, said it was a stark reminder that the virus had once again taken hold in the community.

“All year long, there have been many COVID spikes in my personal network, but it hasn’t felt like this, where all of a sudden we’re back to events that we used to hear about in 2020, where suddenly dozens of people in one fell swoop all get it,” O’Connell said in an interview from his home, where he had been marooned for a five-day quarantine. “I haven’t really had to think about the phrase ‘superspreader event’ in a long time.”

I haven’t really had to think about the phrase ‘superspreader event’ in a long time.”
— Freddie O’Connell, a Nashville City Council member who has COVID and is recovering at home

As students have returned to school in recent days, most administrators have signaled that they are not planning to return to stricter rules surrounding masks and testing, typically only asking parents to keep their children home when they are sick. In Chicago, where COVID-related hospitalizations are still extremely low but have crept up in recent weeks, the public school district promised to provide free rapid COVID tests to students and staff but did not intend to resume testing in schools.

Even in the face of rising COVID infections, there is a balance that should be struck in schools now, said Hedy Chang, the executive director of Attendance Works, a national group that promotes solutions to chronic absenteeism.

“We got trained to stay home for every sign of illness during the pandemic,” she said. “We actually have to shift norms again, to being judicious and thoughtful about when we keep kids home, and only keeping them home if we think it’s truly a problem.”

Dr. John M. Coleman, a pulmonary and critical care doctor at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, said he expected COVID infections to continue to increase this fall and winter, but he noted that the most recent strains of the virus were less severe than those that circulated early in the pandemic.

People who are hospitalized for COVID now tend to have preexisting conditions or suppressed immune systems that make them more susceptible to severe symptoms, he said.

“Moving forward, we have to learn to live cohesively with COVID,” Coleman said. “COVID is always going to be around.”

Particularly for people who already have health risks, he said, it is crucial to receive the new booster this fall, wash hands frequently and wear a mask if feeling unwell.

Throughout the summer, public health officials have stressed prevention and treatment in the face of an increase in cases. The Cambridge, Massachusetts, health department said in a statement this month that it saw outbreaks at nursing homes in the city and urged the public to stay up-to-date on vaccinations.

But some institutions have responded to the recent increase in COVID infections by reinstating pandemic-era rules.

In keeping with an order from the health department in Los Angeles County, the movie studio Lionsgate recently sent a memo to staff members informing them that because of a COVID outbreak among employees, they would be required to wear masks in the office again. (The health department notified the studio Friday that because it had reported no new cases, the requirement was lifted.)

Morris Brown College, a small private school in Atlanta, announced this month that it would require face masks on campus again. The school banned parties and large gatherings on campus for two weeks and said that temperature checks would be administered to students.

The Dane County, Wisconsin, jail suspended all outside visits after 49 prisoners tested positive for COVID, the Dane County Sheriff’s Office announced last week.

And in a few, isolated parts of the country, it can feel as if the pandemic never left.

Louise Tsinajinnie, a spokesperson for the Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation, said that in her office in Window Rock, Arizona, employees still wear masks at their desks.

The Navajo Nation was hit especially hard by COVID during the pandemic, she said, and cases have been on the rise again.

“Many people feel that they don’t want to get sick again,” she said. “It’s a real concern on the Navajo Nation. We do worry about our elders and we don’t want this impacting them.”

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