HONOLULU (AP) — A high school prom in Hawaii where masked dancers were not allowed to touch. A return to virtual city council meetings in a Colorado city after the mayor and others tested positive following an in-person meeting. A reinstated mask mandate at qualified care facilities in Los Angeles County after 22 new outbreaks in a single week.
A COVID-19 wave is underway, beginning to cause disruption as the school year draws to a close and Americans prepare for summer vacation. However, many people have returned to their pre-pandemic routines and plans, which often involve travel.
Case numbers are as high as they have been since mid-February, and those numbers are likely grossly undercounted due to unreported positive home test results and asymptomatic infections. Earlier this month, an influential modeling group at the University of Washington in Seattle estimated that just 13% of cases were reported to US health officials.
Hospitalizations are also increasing, and more than a third of the US population lives in areas classified as high risk by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Northeast is hardest hit.
Yet immunizations are stagnant and elected officials across the country appear reluctant to impose new restrictions on a public willing to go ahead, even as the US death toll over 1 million people less than 2 1/2 years after the outbreak.
“People are probably underestimating the prevalence of COVID,” said Crystal Watson, director of public health at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security’s Coronavirus Resource Center. “I think there are a lot more viruses out there than we realize and so people are much, much more likely to be exposed and infected than they expect.”
A key metric for the pandemic — the seven-day rolling average for daily new cases in the U.S. — has skyrocketed over the past two weeks, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The number was about 76,000 on May 9 and rose to almost 109,000 on Monday. That was the highest level since mid-February, when the Omicron-driven surge came to an end.
The death toll is still falling and hospital intensive care units are not overwhelmed like at other times during the pandemic, likely because vaccination and immunity from people who have already had the disease are keeping many cases less severe.
“The nature of the disease has changed. Two years ago I saw a steady stream of bad cases of pneumonia. Now we are in a situation where people should be able to avoid this outcome by utilizing vaccines, pre-exposure prophylaxis (if at high risk), and early antiviral therapy,” says Dr. Jonathan Dworkin, a clinical infectious disease physician in Hawaii, said via email.
In Hawaii, which once had one of the lowest infection, hospitalization and death rates in the country, new cases are surging among the state’s 1.4 million residents. The University of Hawaii will have mask duty indoors again via its 10-campus system starting Wednesday.
With an increase in cases for eight straight weeks, Hawaii has the second-highest infection rate of any state, behind only Rhode Island. However, since positive home test results aren’t counted in official data, the Hawaii Department of Health estimates the case count is actually five or six times higher.
Despite its rise, visitors have flocked to Hawaii’s beaches in droves, especially in recent months.
Yaling Fisher, owner of Hawaii Aloha Travel, said bookings for the islands have not declined during the surge. On the contrary, they have increased.
“We’re still busy now,” she said. “We don’t see any cancellations.”
Samantha Hanberg, who was in Hawaii this week with her newlywed husband, said the couple left their masks at home in California while they went on vacation. She said she contracted COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic and then got fully vaccinated so she too feels safe.
“Nobody wants to get sick, but it’s definitely not at the forefront of my mind anymore,” she said while nibbling on Waikiki Beach Shave Ice. “I’m at the point now where I just want to live again and enjoy life and not worry so much.”
Officials first shut down Hawaii’s tourism industry by quarantining all arriving passengers. They moved to a testing requirement and then a vaccination exemption before lifting all restrictions in March.
Hawaii was the last state in the nation to ditch its mask mandate, though it remains the only state to require all public school students to wear masks indoors — a rule that will last throughout the summer and potentially into the next school year will remain in effect.
Almost two years after California Gov. Gavin Newsom imposed the nation’s first statewide stay-home order, the state officially switched to an “endemic” approach in February. As in Hawaii and many other states, the weekly infection rate has increased dramatically recently.
The new surge prompted school districts in Pacific Grove and Berkeley to reinstate their indoor mask mandates, while an outbreak at a long-term healthcare facility in Northern California sickened 26 residents and 10 staff members On Monday.
Some school districts in the Northeast have also revived mask requirements, including those in Philadelphia and Providence, Rhode Island.
But New York which was once the US epicenter the pandemic, does not seem to be following suit. The city is dealing with another spike in cases, but Mayor Eric Adams has all but ruled out bringing back a citywide mask mandate unless hospitals are flooded again.
The city’s school district has jettisoned its practice of closing classrooms when multiple students test positive, recommending only mask-wearing and even dropping its requirement that students be vaccinated for prom.
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