The Pandemic Is Surging, CDC Wastewater Data Shows

One in three Americans may get COVID-19 during the current surge of the pandemic, the CDC wastewater data suggests.

The SARS-COV-2 viral activity levels in wastewater increased from 8.02 on Dec. 3-9 to 11.23 on Dec. 17-23 nationally, according to the latest data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The levels are higher than they were at the same time last year.

The National Wastewater Surveillance System helps to track the virus that causes COVID-19 in communities across the country. The increased activity levels may serve as an early warning that infections are on the rise.

The United States is currently in the second-biggest pandemic surge, Dr. Lucky Tran, a scientist and public health communicator at Columbia University, wrote on social network X.

"It will peak in the next week, with ~2 million infections per day. During this surge, ~100 million people total (~1 in 3 people in the U.S.) will likely get COVID," he added.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, COVID-19 cases have risen each year after the winter holidays, when people attend gatherings with their friends and families. COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases spread even more when people return to work and school.

However, hospitalizations — another grim sign of a worsening pandemic — have been on the rise even before the holidays. There were more than 29,000 hospitalizations from COVID-19 across the country from Dec. 17-23, up by 16% from the week before, the latest CDC data shows.

During the same period, department visits and deaths from COVID-19 increased by 12% and 10%, respectively.

Reinstating mask mandates

As the pandemic surges, healthcare facilities in New York, California, Illinois, and Massachusetts have reinstated mask mandates among patients and providers.

New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan told WABC TV on Wednesday that masks are needed to avoid staffing shortages.

"When we saw the omicron wave in 2022, the biggest issues were not only people getting sick, but that we had a lot of frontline health workers, they were out with COVID," he said.

The surge may be partly driven by the new dominant strain, JN.1, which first appeared in the U.S. in September 2023 and now accounts for 44.2% of new infections.

Health officials say JN.1 may be either more transmissible or better at evading the immune system but currently does not pose an increased risk to public health compared to other circulating variants.

Although updated COVID-19 shots appear to be effective against JN.1, vaccination rates remain low, as only 17% of Americans have received the booster.

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