(NEXSTAR) – Doctors and public health experts have long warned of wintertime, when outdoor activities move indoors, making it easier for airborne viruses to spread quickly and infect more people. More than two years into the global COVID-19 pandemic, with vaccines and boosters plentiful and effective antiviral treatments ready to use, are we still worried about a winter surge?
“Sadly, there will be a lot of people that get infected,” predicted Dr. Ilan Shapiro, chief medical affairs officer at AltaMed in Los Angeles. “This virus actually knows how to get us. It follows humans, meaning that we are going to be together, we’re going to be in those spaces with poor ventilation, and COVID-19 loves that.”
Despite widespread vaccine availability last winter, we still saw a massive spike in COVID-19 cases, driven by the highly contagious omicron variant. The omicron variant has kept mutating, spawning lots of subvariants, and continued to infect lots of people over the past year.
That’s actually good news for this winter, explained Dr. Monica Gandhi, a professor of medicine and infectious disease expert at the University of California, San Francisco.
“We have incredibly high levels of population immunity this year, which is really different than this time last year when BA.1 hit, which was the first variant of omicron,” said Gandhi. “At that point … we still didn’t have the levels of vaccination that we have now, and we hadn’t gotten repeated waves of infection.”
Those repeated waves of omicron infection have helped build up people’s immunity to the virus, Gandhi said. “We have had so much natural exposure on top of vaccinations, [creating] hybrid immunity, which paper after paper shows that hybrid immunity is stronger than either vaccination-induced immunity or infection-induced immunity alone. … so I think it’s very different in the winter of 2022 than the winter of 2021.”
Dr. Jeffrey Kopin, chief medical officer at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital, told WGN Radio he was also hopeful we’d see more of an “uptick” than a “surge” this year.
“I don’t see anything right now to tell me that there’s going to be a surge, but that does not mean that we should not be prepared,” said Kopin. “I hate to say this, but this COVID virus isn’t done with us. It’s still around.”
All three doctors emphasized the importance of getting the new bivalent COVID-19 booster.
About 19.4 million doses of the new vaccines have been administered, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), meaning less than 6% of the U.S. population has received one.
It’s especially important for older people to get the newest booster, said Gandhi. “I do think the population that needs that booster dose the most is over 65, so I think that is the place that we need to put a lot of our efforts on getting an additional dose as we go into the winter.”
Gandhi cited a recent U.K. study published in The Lancet that found the 80-and-over population, people with multiple comorbidities, people with chronic kidney disease and those on immunosuppressants are at the highest risk for severe complications from COVID. Those people should be sure to get a new booster shot ahead of winter, she added.
If case counts do start to rise in your community over the next few months, Shapiro said, you should be ready to bring your face masks back out to avoid getting sick.
“Winter is coming and it’s a reality. We will not have the 2020 winter. We do not want the 2021 winter. We are in 2022, when we know what actually can protect ourselves in our communities,” Shapiro said.