Virus-packed holiday season ahead for US, experts say

COVID-19 and flu levels across the nation are picking up steam, with health officials anticipating further increases as the holiday season kicks off. 

New COVID admissions and emergency department visits were each up about 10% for the week ending Nov. 25, CDC data shows. In all, 19,444 new hospitalizations were reported, marking the third straight week of increase. Test positivity rates are also up. The current data almost certainly underestimates the virus's current spread, since wastewater levels are high and are an early indicator of whether infections are increasing or decreasing, experts told The Wall Street Journal.

"Wastewater is literally the earliest indicator, a great tool to show community transmission and it's one of the more comprehensive metrics we have," Katelyn Jetelina, scientific adviser to the CDC who was involved in developing the agency's wastewater surveillance site, told the news outlet. 

SARS-CoV-2 viral activity levels have been increasing nationally since October and are especially high in the Midwest and Northeast. Experts are also keeping their eye on a new variant, JN.1 — a descendant of BA.2.86 — growing quickly in parts of Europe. BA.2.86 made up nearly 9% of U.S. cases for the week ending Nov. 25, while the JN.1 sublineage is not yet tracked separately since it makes up less than 0.1% of cases. 

Meanwhile, most of the U.S. is seeing a rise in flu activity. The positivity rate was 6.2% for the week ending Nov. 25 and 4,268 lab-confirmed flu patients were admitted to a hospital.  

"Flu season is just beginning across most of the country, though accelerating fast, and while we're seeing relatively low levels of COVID, COVID is still the primary cause of new respiratory hospitalizations and deaths, with about 15,000 hospitalizations and about 1,000 deaths every single week," Mandy Cohen, MD, CDC director, told CNN in a recent report. 

Respiratory syncytial virus levels remain high, she said, though may be nearing their peak. Weekly emergency department visits for RSV had been rising since September but fell slightly for the week ending Dec. 2, when about 22,000 were reported. 


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