The United States is getting its first taste of what it’s like to experience COVID-19 outbreaks during this new phase of living with the virus, and the list of newly infected people is dotted with stars.
Cabinet members, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Broadway actors and the governors of New Jersey and Connecticut have all tested positive. Outbreaks at Georgetown University and Johns Hopkins University are bringing mask requirements back to those campuses as officials search for quarantine space.
Known infections probably only reveal the tip of the iceberg – with actors and politicians being regularly tested at work. The official case numbers are certainly vast underestimates of the extent of the virus circulating due to home testing and mildly ill people not bothering to test at all.
Nationwide, mask wearing is at its lowest level since April 2020, said Ali Mokdad, professor of health sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. For every 100 infections, only seven are recorded in official tallies, according to the latest estimate from his modeling group. That means a place like New York, which averages 1,600 cases a day, has a significantly higher true number of infections.
Mokdad expects the high level of immunity the United States has built up from previous infections and vaccinations to protect the nation from a strong surge.
“We’re going to have infections here and there, but it’s not going to shut down the country,” Mokdad said. ” Life must continue. We need to be vaccinated and boosted. We have to protect the vulnerable, but we have to get used to it.
On Broadway, several performances of the comedy “Plaza Suite” were canceled after Matthew Broderick tested positive, followed by his wife and co-star, Sarah Jessica Parker. Daniel Craig, too, was dropped from his cover of “Macbeth”.
Large indoor gatherings with optional masks have led to infections, with a high-profile party in Washington, DC now considered a possible super-spreader event. Other clusters of infections outside of regularly tested groups may go undetected, said Josh Michaud, associate director of global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation in Washington.
“It’s harder now than before to know what’s going on. The future is a bit more hazy because we don’t have as much information at our fingertips,” Michaud said. “If you’re not an actor in a Broadway play or a politician, you might fall through the cracks.”
The public health response will vary from community to community depending on what is happening locally, Michaud said.
“We’re fighting smaller fires instead of one raging fire across the country and those smaller fires can be disruptive,” Michaud said. “It leaves everyone to choose their own adventure when it comes to pandemic response and individual behaviors.”
In Washington DC, the outbreak has been particularly high profile – hitting several Cabinet Secretaries and members of Congress as well as Mayor Muriel Bowser and the President of Georgetown University.
At least a dozen of those infections can be traced to dinner at the Gridiron Club, an annual fixture on DC’s social calendar that took place Saturday for the first time in three years. The dinner is an example of a return to near-total normalcy that is happening across the country, leading to an increase in positive tests, but not necessarily a corresponding increase in serious illnesses or hospitalizations.
Washington, DC, like much of the rest of the country, has significantly softened its stance on COVID-19 in recent weeks. Bowser allowed vaccination and indoor masking warrants to expire, and the city’s health department stopped reporting daily virus numbers in early March. Attendees at the Gridiron Club dinner, which Bowser did not attend, were required to provide proof of vaccination, but otherwise no masking or social distancing protocols were observed.
And other staples of DC’s social calendar have also returned to normal. The city’s annual cherry blossom festival has been going on for weeks – with dozens of associated events including a parade scheduled for Saturday.
Amid this general return to pre-pandemic behavior, there are a few steps back. Georgetown University has announced it will reintroduce its indoor mask mandate amid rising infection numbers, including university president John DeGioia
Georgetown’s Chief Public Health Officer Ranit Mishori, in announcing the new restrictions, described the spike in infection as “significant” – particularly among undergraduates. “Fortunately, with the vast majority of our community up to date on vaccination, we are not seeing any cases involving serious illness,” Mishori wrote.
DC’s Chief Health Officer, Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt, in comments to reporters this week, pointed to the current low level of hospitalizations as evidence that vaccinations have been successful in limiting the severity of the disease.
Virus measures in Washington have increased over the past month according to the city’s health department. The weekly case rate per 100,000 population fell from 51 at the start of March to 110 at the end of March. But that’s still well below the weekly case rate of 865 per 100,000 people reported in the second week of January when the omicron variant surged.
Nesbitt said there were no immediate plans to reinstate any of the outdated virus protocols, but that was always an option going forward.
“We must remember that living with the virus does not mean forgetting the virus. It’s still there, it’s making people sick and some are dying,” Michaud said. “If we are not prepared, we could find ourselves in a bad situation quickly.”
AP writer Ashraf Khalil in Washington, DC, contributed.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.