Covid-19 Is Still A Part Of Our Reality: How The Virus And Our Immunity Has Changed

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 97% of people in the US have some level of immunity against Covid-19 through vaccination, infection, or both. Covid-19 infections are now on the rise again, and with the government slowing down on health and safety measures since the public health emergency was declared over in May, many individuals are wondering what to do as we enter this next wave of infections. 

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Covid-19 infections are once again on the rise. While 97% of individuals in the US now have some level of immunity against the virus, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), experts are warning that there’s still good reason to proceed with caution and not to treat it casually. 

Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency physician and dean of the Yale School of Public Health, told CNN

“At this point, the risk is lower because of our prior immunity, whether for severe outcomes or for long Covid. Covid is still more dangerous than the flu, but its level of danger is becoming less. We’re still very early in our human experience with the coronavirus, even four years in, and there are still things we don’t know,” she explained.

“For it to behave like other respiratory viruses in terms of seasonality and surges is entirely expected. It would be really weird for Covid to disappear or for it not to cause illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths. It is still a virus.”

With the newfound immunity that a majority of Americans now have, as long as our immune systems are working properly, they will remember most forms of the coronavirus if we were to become infected. However, everyone is different, and for some, their immune systems might not “kick in” as quickly. 

According to census data, 1 in 4 Americans are over the age of 60, and about 3% of the population, around 7 million people, are severely immunocompromised, according to the National Institutes of Health. This data, combined with individual genetics, there’s a massive group of individuals who need to maintain some level of immunity consistently. 

Your strongest immunity levels occur around two weeks to two months after getting your vaccinations. Meaning it’s smartest to receive your vaccine before the virus is set to be on the rise again. Dr. Mandy Cohen, the CDC director, gave some advice when it comes to updating your immunizations for Covid-19.

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“Even though cases are going up now, most people will be better off waiting a few weeks to get the newly updated Covid-19 vaccines rather than trying to get one of the older bivalent vaccines right now. But this is dependent on personal risk, so if you’re concerned, talk to your doctor or nurse practitioner about your options.”

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New and evolving variants are one of the biggest reasons people should keep their Covid vaccinations updated, as when the virus evolves, our ability to fight it off changes, typically for the worse. In response, the US government has launched an initiative known as Project NextGen, which works to create longer-lasting, variant-proof vaccines, and the first clinical trials are expected to start this winter. 

“People with Covid worry about three things: ‘Am I going to die? Am I going to end up in the hospital?’ But for most people, it’s ‘Am I going to be sick and stay sick for many months? Am I going to get long Covid?’ And for most people, actually, that’s the most significant risk,” Dr. Daniel Griffin, an infectious disease specialist at Columbia University, stated

In a recent study from Australia that took data from around 23,000 people who had Covid-19 between July and August 2022, 18% of the group experienced long Covid symptoms in the months after their initial infection. More than 94% of those individuals had received at least three doses of a Covid-19 vaccine. 

Griffin stated that based on “the percentage reported in the Australian paper seems high. After people are vaccinated, their risk of getting long Covid drops from about 10% to 20% to the single digits. It goes down even further if they use antivirals like Paxlovid.”

“Recent studies do seem to show that the overall proportion of infections that result in problems like long Covid seems to be dropping over time. When you look at studies, long Covid is going down by one-half, and there have been multiple studies like in the UK, the US Census Bureau and all that stuff with the different variants showing this,” said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California at San Francisco.

“The general principles are, the sicker you are, the more naive you are immunologically, the higher the chance of acute and chronic complications, and that’s kind of going by multiple studies showing that generally earlier in the pandemic, with the original variants, people had more acute and chronic complications.”

To reduce your risk of infection, it’s important to continue with the health and safety measures that we all adopted in 2020. Masks are highly recommended when in a crowded, poorly ventilated space, and you should keep up with your vaccinations. 

​​“Those things haven’t changed in the past year. It’s just that we all thought this was done. And so now we’re having to re-remember what we did last fall to help manage the virus,” Ranney said.

Dr. Ellie Murray, an epidemiologist at the Boston University School of Public Health, says “we should treat Covid at least as seriously as we do the flu: not just chicken soup but time off, bed rest, fluids and reduced contact with others while sick, plus vaccination and good hygiene to prevent infection.”

Murray notes that “we used to think that there was nothing more we could do about the flu and that the level of annual deaths was the lowest it was going to get. The pandemic proved otherwise. We can have fewer flu deaths, and decreasing those is easier even than decreasing Covid deaths,” she said.

“So a better approach would be to treat both the flu and Covid as a new normal, which includes all the things we used to do for the flu but also adds in ventilation, masking, testing and treatment. These additions will help reduce the burden of disease for both Covid and the flu.”

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