More Americans could be asked to re-mask amid new COVID challenges

COVID-19 cases are rising in the United States, and could get even worse in the coming months, US federal health officials warned on Wednesday, urging hardest-hit areas to consider reissuing calls to the use of masks indoors.

An increasing number of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations is bringing more of the country under guidelines issued by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) requiring the use of masks and other precautions against infection.

Right now, about a third of the US population lives in areas that are considered to be at higher risk, primarily in the Northeast and Midwest. Those are areas where people should already consider wearing masks indoors, but Americans elsewhere should also take note, officials said.

“Previous increases in infections, in different waves of infection, have shown that this travels across the country,” Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said in a briefing with reporters at the White House.

For a growing number of areas, “we urge local leaders to encourage the use of prevention strategies such as masks in closed public places and increase access to testing and treatment,” he said.

However, officials were cautious about making any concrete predictions, saying how much worse the pandemic will get will depend on a number of factors, including the degree to which previous infections will protect against new variants.

More funds are sought for the fight against COVID

Last week, White House COVID-19 coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha warned in an interview with The Associated Press that the US will be increasingly vulnerable to the coronavirus this fall and winter if Congress doesn’t pass quickly new funds for more vaccines and treatments.

People walk past a COVID-19 testing site in New York City on Tuesday. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

He said the US was already falling behind other nations in sourcing supplies of the next generation of COVID-19 vaccines and said the domestic manufacturing base for at-home testing is already running low as the demand.

Jha said domestic test makers have begun closing lines and laying off workers, and in the coming weeks they will start selling equipment and prepare to get out of the business of producing tests altogether, unless the US government has money to buy more tests, like the hundreds. of millions it has sent home for free this year.

That would leave the US dependent on other countries to test supplies, risking shortages during a surge, Jha warned. About 8.5 million households have placed orders for the latest tranche of 8 free tests since the order opened on Monday, Jha added.

The pandemic is now two and a half years old. And the US has seen, depending on how you count them, five waves of COVID-19 during that time, with subsequent waves fueled by mutated versions of the coronavirus.

A fifth wave occurred mainly in December and January, caused by the Omicron variant, which spread much faster than previous versions.

New wave on the horizon?

Some experts worry that the country is now seeing signs of a sixth wave, fueled by a sub-variant of Omicron. On Wednesday, Walensky noted a steady increase in COVID-19 cases over the last five weeks, including a 26 percent increase nationally in the last week.

A man wearing a protective mask and headphones walks past graffiti on the Bowery Wall in New York City on Monday. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Hospitalizations are also on the rise, up 19 percent in the past week, though he said they remain much lower than during the omicron wave.

In late February, as that wave was winding down, the CDC released a new set of measures for communities where COVID-19 was on the wane, with less emphasis on positive test results and more on what’s happening in hospitals.

Walensky said more than 32 percent of the country currently lives in areas with medium or high community levels of COVID-19, including more than nine percent at the highest level, where the CDC recommends wearing masks and other mitigation efforts. .

In the last week, an additional eight percent of Americans lived in a county with medium or high community levels of COVID-19.

Officials said they are concerned that waning immunity and relaxed mitigation measures across the country could contribute to a continued rise in infections and illnesses. They encouraged people, particularly older adults, to get backup.

Some health experts say the government should take clearer and bolder action.

The CDC’s community-level guidelines are confusing to the public and don’t provide a clear picture of how much virus transmission is occurring in a community, said Dr. Lakshmi Ganapathi, an infectious disease specialist at Harvard University.

When government officials make recommendations but don’t set rules, “ultimately it’s up to each individual to pick and choose the public health that works for them. But that’s not what’s effective. If you’re talking about stopping hospitalizations and including deaths, all of these interventions work best when people do it collectively,” he said.

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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