COVID-19 will make a comeback this fall and winter, but it’s not expected to hit as hard as the devastating surges during the colder months of the last two years, experts said.
In 2020 and 2021, the deadly virus waned during the summer before roaring back in the fall and winter, with national case counts peaking in the early days of the new year.
Barring a new game-changing variant, a wave of new illnesses could be blunted by people’s immunity from previous infections and vaccinations. Booster shots updated to protect against the Omicron subvariant will also provide key protection, experts said.
An influential advisory panel of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was discussing the new shots Thursday, after they were approved Wednesday by the US Food and Drug Administration. They could be available within days.
“I expect we will go through another surge in the fall, beginning in the next few weeks as we all come back from vacations and schools open,” said Matthew Fox, a professor of epidemiology and global health at the Boston University School of Public Health.
If no new variant arises, “I think we will be able to get through the next wave without it being too bad compared to previous waves in terms of mortality and hospitalizations,” he said.
“We have a pretty good wall of protection from prior infections and vaccinations,” he said by e-mail, though people’s vaccinations will need to be boosted, preferably with the Omicron-targeted shots.
While he predicted that the coming wave would not be “nearly as bad” as past surges, he said it could cause workplace disruptions as people fall ill and that “lots of places will consider bringing back mask mandates, even if just temporarily.”
Stephen Kissler, a postdoctoral research fellow in immunology and infectious diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said, “Like many of the other respiratory viruses we know of, COVID does seem to spread more easily during the winter months. ... It’s clear that there is a seasonal effect to the transmission of COVID.”
With people spending more time indoors due to the colder weather, coupled with an increase in travel and large gatherings during the holiday season, “I do think it’s going to be harder to control COVID this winter,” he said.
The fall and winter could continue the familiar pattern of COVID cases spiking after holidays, he said.
As summer ends, Kissler said he had “some amount of apprehension and some amount of hope — apprehension because of the natural dynamics of COVID in winter and fall, and hope that the [updated] vaccine will be a better match to the circulating strains and will help us avoid the worst impacts.”
The consensus among experts is that the country will see a surge of hospitalizations of some magnitude, but it’s “unlikely to be as big as some of the surges we saw earlier in the pandemic,” he said.
The coming months “could be difficult, should be manageable, and will be much more manageable if we get people vaccinated,” Kissler said.
Justin Lessler, a professor of epidemiology at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, said factors that could affect the pandemic’s trajectory in the coming months include the possible rise of a new variant; how well the updated boosters work; whether people actually get the new shots; and whether people will take precautions such as wearing masks and avoiding indoor dining and crowded gatherings.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty, but without a new variant, we’re almost definitely not going to see anything like Omicron-level surges in the fall,” he said.
Andrew Lover, an assistant professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, sounded a more pessimistic note, emphasizing the threat posed by a new variant.
”I think as much as we all wish the pandemic was behind us, there’s a good chance that’s not the case. I think we could definitely be looking at some headwinds in the next four to five months,” he said. “I think it’s important for everyone to realize we’re still in a mess.”
With COVID-19 continuing to circulate across the world, there are myriad opportunities for the virus to mutate and become more dangerous, he said.
“The big challenge I see is that globally there is massive viral circulation almost everywhere. That is just rolling the dice to find fitter and fitter viruses,” he said. “New variants are definitely going to throw a spanner in the works. It’s unrealistic to expect we won’t see new variants.”
The good news there is no variant on the radar that is raising alarms. The Omicron subvariant BA.2.75 is being monitored, but Lessler said “it seems to be a minor step.”
“Thus far in the United States it doesn’t appear to be really changing the game,” he said.
Kissler said that if a new variant emerges, it might boost the number of cases but not hospitalizations and deaths. “A new variant taking over is not necessarily bad news,” he said. It’s also unlikely that a new variant will evade the immunity built up in the population. While the virus has morphed over time, “one thing the virus hasn’t done yet is throw us a new variant that takes us completely back to square one,” he said.
So what do the experts advise as fall approaches and children head back to school?
“Getting vaccinated is the most important thing we can do,” Kissler said.
“I think a lot hinges on the vaccines and I really strongly encourage people to get the booster,” Lessler said. “Blunting the impact of any fall wave is really contingent on people updating their vaccinations, just like for flu.”
Ryan Huddle of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Martin Finucane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.