As summer heats up, so does the spread of COVID-19 across the United States. According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), COVID-19 infections are growing or likely growing in 39 states and territories. The newest highly transmissible variant, LB.1, is responsible for approximately 1 in 10 new cases.

"As of July 2, 2024, we estimate that COVID-19 infections are growing or likely growing in 39 states and territories," the CDC reported. For the week ending July 6, positive COVID-19 tests increased by 0.8%, COVID-related emergency room visits surged by more than 23%, and hospitalizations rose by just over 13%.

"We're seeing an anticipated summer bump," said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and a professor of preventive medicine and health policy at Vanderbilt University. "COVID doesn't disappear during the summertime the way influenza does. If we look back over our past two years, we've had an increase during the summer months. It abates again in the fall, and then you get a real seasonal increase during the winter."

Factors Behind the Surge

This summer surge can be attributed to a mix of increased social interactions, travel, and indoor gatherings to escape extreme heat. "COVID figures are trending up due to a constellation of factors, including more people congregating close together, more people traveling, and more people going indoors to escape extreme heat," explained Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California San Francisco.

New variants and waning vaccine immunity are also contributing to the rise in cases. The dominant strains currently are KP.3, KP.2, and KP.1.1, which collectively account for more than half of all current cases. These variants belong to a highly contagious family called FLiRT. The LB.1 variant, closely related to FLiRT strains, has an extra mutation and is spreading rapidly.

Vaccine Updates and Recommendations

As the virus continues to evolve, vaccine makers are working to keep up. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommended in June that new vaccines target strains from the JN.1 lineage and, if possible, specifically the KP.2 strain. Dr. Schaffner noted, "There is a finite period of time to make these vaccines, get them bottled up, and distribute them. The current dominant strains, however, are all subvariants of the omicron family, so the anticipation is that these vaccines for the KP strains will provide antibodies that will protect against LB.1."

The CDC recommends that everyone aged six months and older receive an updated 2024-2025 COVID-19 vaccine when they become available this fall. For those wondering whether to wait for the new shots or take action now, Dr. Chin-Hong offers clear advice: "Did you get the vaccine approved in the fall of 2023? If not, I would go ahead and get it, especially if you are older than 65 and immunocompromised. Those 65 and older can also get another vaccine if four months have elapsed since the last one."

Impact on Healthcare and Public Health Measures

Despite the rising numbers, most COVID-19 infections have been relatively mild. Emergency department visits have increased, but only Hawaii has reached a stage considered "substantial." Wastewater testing, which helps predict COVID-19 trends, shows encouraging signs that the summer surge may soon level off, with viral activity currently low nationwide.

Vaccination remains a critical tool in preventing severe illness, hospitalization, and death. Treatments such as nirmatrelvir and ritonavir (Paxlovid) and remdesivir (Veklury) have also been effective in preventing serious outcomes. Dr. Chin-Hong emphasized, "Fortunately, the hospitals have not been overwhelmed as in previous years, attesting to the collective immunity in the population. Still, some people are at risk of getting seriously ill: mainly those older than 75 or those who are very immunocompromised who have not gotten the latest vaccine or [been] prescribed Paxlovid or remdesivir when infected."

Recognizing and Responding to Symptoms

The CDC continues to warn about common COVID-19 symptoms such as congestion, sore throat, fatigue, and headache. Dr. Chin-Hong has observed fewer cases of symptoms like shortness of breath and loss of taste and smell, which were common in 2020, with some people now experiencing nausea and diarrhea.

Given the similarity of COVID-19 symptoms to those of allergies or the common cold, doctors recommend taking a COVID test to confirm infection, especially for those at high risk of severe illness.