‘The pandemic is not over’: Health experts warn of winter COVID surge amid fewer safety precautions

By: - November 1, 2022 7:00 am

A surgical mask and a KN95 mask hang on display for sale at a pharmacy. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

For Briana Michel, a senior broadcast student at Florida A&M University, wearing a face mask for protection against COVID-19 seems a thing of the past.

“From my perspective, I don’t think students are worried about COVID,” Michel said in an interview with the Florida Phoenix. “I don’t know anyone personally that wears a mask. When necessary, I did wear one.”

“It just all seems like too much,” Michel said. “I don’t think the masks are doing what people are thinking they are doing. I certainly wouldn’t say the pandemic is over, it’s just calmed down a little.”

That’s also the sentiment for many college students at FAMU, a historically Black university in the state’s capital. But the threat from the global pandemic is not over.

New subvariants of omicron are seeping into the United States and across the globe and may not be as effective against existing COVID vaccines, according to global and federal health authorities.

And in the coming months, health experts are warning of a surge in cases.

Abraiya Ruffin, a senior majoring in broadcast journalism, told the Phoenix that she’s comfortable without wearing a mask but follows other safety measures while on campus.

“Personally, I am comfortable,” Ruffin said in an interview. “I don’t see too many people too close to anybody when they’re sick, especially here at my school [FAMU]. We try to be as cautious as we can about safety and health.”

“Honestly, my thoughts on COVID safety and health precautions, I would say that if anyone is sick that they should absolutely wear a mask and make sure that they are sanitizing their hands, especially when you’re in large crowds of people,” Ruffin said.  “But I feel if you’re confident that you are not sick or obviously you’ve been tested for COVID and it came back negative, you don’t have to wear masks.”

Anissa Carby, a sophomore from Miami attending FAMU’s School of Journalism, said that, at one point, students had to wear masks.

In 2020, both Florida State University and FAMU did establish a face mask requirement for their  communities as well as visitors, as previously reported by the Phoenix. But that eventually changed after university officials issued recommendations to follow safety measures, citing a decrease in cases.

“I really don’t wear masks on campus,” Carby said. “They were mandating masks, but they shut it down. I mean, you still see some of the signs recommending masks. No one really cares about a mask.”

‘The pandemic is not over’

Dr. Syra Madad, senior director of the systemwide special pathogens program at NYC Health + Hospital, said in a phone conversation with the Phoenix that COVID infections will likely climb during winter because of the highly transmissible omicron variant and other emerging subvariants.

And to fight the outbreak, it’s important to stay “up to date with your vaccination because that is one of the best defenses we have against COVID-19,” Madad argued.

“I think we definitely are in for an uptick in cases of COVID-19. The question is how significant is the uptick going to be.” Madad said. “Is it going to be at the level of a significant surge like we saw last year when we saw the introduction of omicron right after Thanksgiving? And then we saw a significant surge of infections in December, January, and February.”

“We are much less vaccinated and we are much less boosted from a population standpoint,” Madad said. “We have millions of Americans that are months out from their last vaccination dose, which means that there is a lot of waning immunity happening every day that goes by. But definitely hospitalizations and deaths, as we are looking at some of the forecasting models.”

Leah Yeary, a registered nurse at Blake Medical Center in Bradenton, insisted in an email to the Phoenix that “the pandemic is not over” and it’s important for people to remain vigilant against the virus.

Yeary is a member of the National Nurses United (NNU), a union representing RNs across the country.

Yeary said: “We are facing a potential winter surge, especially because we could have many variants, not just one variant, hitting us all at the same time. The virus keeps changing and each mutation is getting better at bypassing immune defenses.

“This is why it is so important to maintain multiple measures of infection control, including masking, vaccinations, testing, ventilation, contact tracing and notification, proper isolation, and quarantining. We also need a permanent OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] COVID standard that would require employers to protect nurses and other health care workers from COVID. OSHA still has not issued a permanent standard, despite statutory deadlines and public promises to issue the standard already.”

BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 subvariants

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been tracking emerging subvariants of omicron that are on the rise in the United States, including BQ.1 and BQ.1.1.

Michael N. Teng, PhD
Associate Professor of Medicine, Internal Medicine, Molecular Medicine & Pediatrics. University of South Florida. Credit: USF.

Dr. Michael Teng, associate professor of medicine at the University of South Florida, said in a phone conversation that current vaccines and even treatments used for COVID “may not be as effective” against BQ.1 and BQ 1.1.

“The one real problem with the BQ.1 and BQ 1.1 is that they have mutations that makes them resistant to the monoclonal antibodies that we have out there,” Teng said.  “Those are the ones that are starting to get the higher proportions in the U.S.”

In fact, both BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 make up 27.1 percent of COVID variants in the nation, according to the latest report from the CDC. Just a week ago, the subvariants combined accounted for 16.6 percent of COVID variants in the nation, CDC data show.

But BA.5 continues to dominate variants circulating in the U.S., accounting for 49.6 percent of COVID cases, according to the latest CDC report.

What about XBB?

XBB is a new subvariant part of the omicron family, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which has been tracking it and other concerning variants.

There is limited information about the variant but early data suggest that XBB “is the most antibody-evasive” COVID variant to date, WHO officials said in a recent COVID-19 report.

In an email Monday to the Phoenix, a WHO spokesperson said XBB has been identified in 35 countries, as of Oct. 25, with the “majority from Asia, though it has been reported from countries around the world.”

WHO said in an email to the Phoenix: “This [XBB] variant seems to have a growth advantage from the limited data available. It has a number of mutations, some of which may make it able to evade prior immunity. This may give it the ability to cause a new wave of infection. Lab and epidemiological studies are ongoing to better understand the potential of this variant to evade prior immunity. So far there is no evidence of changed disease severity with this variant.”

Meanwhile, a spokesperson from the CDC said in an email to the Phoenix last week that “we don’t have data on that yet” and didn’t’ confirm whether XBB has been detected in the United States.

However, both Madad and Teng said there are most likely low levels of XBB in the United States. Madad said the subvariant most likely has been detected in the United States “but it has not been significant enough to be picked up on surveillance.”

The federal agency did provide an alert about XBB and the other subvariants of omicron in an Oct. 21 announcement.

Coronavirus with some of the lipid molecules altered to spell out “BA.5” in reference to the COVID-19 pandemic Omicron variant that is rapidly spreading. (Getty Images)

“CDC is closely tracking a wide range of Omicron sublineages, including three drawing recent attention. BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 are offshoots — grandchildren, if you will — of the BA.5 that’s been dominant for months,” according to the CDC.

“CDC data show that they seem to be spreading relatively quickly so far, but they’re still a small proportion of overall variants. CDC is also keeping a close eye on a sublineage called XBB based on international reports, although it’s still very rare in the United States.”

As for XBB, the new subvariant triggered a wave of COVID cases in Singapore in October, according to a COVID update from Singapore’s Ministry of Health. The XBB subvariant was first detected in August 2022 in India, according to the ministry.

But in the United States, there haven’t been many cases of XBB so far, Teng of USF said. “I don’t think we’ve seen a lot of it. It’s spreading really rapidly in Singapore,” Teng said. “They had a rise in cases and now the cases seem to be coming down.”

According to a report from Fortune, “XBB has not been identified in the U.S. so far. But spinoffs of it — XBB.1, XBB.2, and XBB.3 — have, according to GISAID data. XBB.1 was first detected in the U.S. on Sept. 15 and represented 0.26% of cases genetically sequenced over the past 15 days, Raj Rajnarayanan, an assistant dean of research and associate professor at the New York Institute of Technology campus in Jonesboro, Ark., told Fortune on Monday, citing GISAID data.” GISAID is a global science initiative.

Teng of USF agrees that Florida and other states across the nation will likely see a surge in COVID infections, especially due to the new subvariants.

“I think we are going to start seeing that,” Teng said. “Literally, people aren’t masking. So, we are not taking a lot of precautions – not a lot of uptake in the new bivalent boosters that are actually going to provide probably the best protection.

“I do expect that we are going to see a lot more infections. The problem is that we are not really tracking that as well anymore.”

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Issac Morgan
Issac Morgan

Issac Morgan is a 2009 graduate of Florida A&M University's School of Journalism, and a proud native of Tallahassee. He has covered city council and community events at the Gadsden County Times, worked as a sports news assistant at the Tallahassee Democrat, a communications specialist for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and as a proofreader at the Florida Law Weekly.