UAB Doc: COVID ‘Not Going Away’

Every county in Alabama still rank as highly transmissible for COVID-19. (Source: ADPH)

The current surge in omicron cases is expected to last another two to three weeks, but that does not mean the virus is going away, a UAB epidemiologist said Tuesday.

Dr. Suzanne Judd, professor and epidemiologist in the UAB School of Public Health, said she doesn’t know when the next surge in COVID-19 will come, but she’s pretty sure we’ll have one.

People do not develop lasting immunity to COVID when they either get the virus or get vaccinated, partly because the virus mutates so easily.

“I think it’s a pretty good indication that this one is not going away. we continue to see surges with new variants, and that’s likely to be what we’ll continue to see in the future,” Judd said. “So, herd immunity is probably not possible with this one, not the type of herd immunity where we never see the virus again. This one is where we’re probably going to see it pop up from time to time with regular surges.”

In the past three or four days, Judd said, cases have begun to plateau in Alabama, signaling the beginning of the end of the current omicron surge.

For the past week, the state has had an average of 11,120 new cases per day, about 3,700 less than the peak daily average at the start of last week, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health coronavirus dashboard. The state’s positivity rate – the percentage of COVID tests that showed positive results – was 42.6%.

Deaths are rising. The state had 104 people die of COVID in the past week, which is more of an indication where we were with the virus spread a couple of weeks ago than currently.

Judd said that, because omicron is so highly contagious, it spread first in densely populated areas such as Jefferson County and the Mobile area.

Jefferson County averaged about 1,696 new cases a day in the past week and logged four more deaths. The positivity rate is 38.8%, a drop of more than 2 percentage points from a week ago.

The largest cities in the U.S. already are seeing a rapid decline in cases, Judd said. When that happens in Alabama, the state should see cases drop to the level it was before omicron hit here.

The virus has not officially been classified as endemic, meaning a virus society generally has to live with, but Judd expects that to happen. Influenza is a good example of a virus endemic to the U.S. The seasonal nature of COVID is unclear now, Judd said. Alabama has tended to have surges in the winter and the summer. But that’s not the pattern everywhere, she said.

When there are surges locally, as with the flu, steps should be taken to avoid transmission, such as shutting down some classes for a while.

People should expect to have continued vaccination campaigns, Judd said. The illness and the vaccine appear to give people six to eight months of immunity. That immunity is not absolute, particularly since COVID mutates so easily. The expectation of the vaccine is that it will keep people out of the hospital and prevent death, she said.

Masking also will be important when surges come, Judd said.

“We just have to find ways as a society to minimize spread when we’re in the middle of a surge,” Judd said.

Although masking and vaccinations are the two most important steps to avoid serious cases of COVID, Judd had other advice, as well. Take care of yourself, she said. Eat healthfully, get enough sleep and manage stress. Be ready with masks when surges do hit and listen to public health guidance as it comes out, she said.

“They (surges) will come regularly, so we have to be ready as a society for how we’re going to move.”