Editor's note: this blog was last updated Sept. 18, 2023, with new information from the CDC.
As this summer winds down, there’s a lot of talk about COVID-19 cases being on the rise. While this may be occurring slightly earlier in the summer than we’d expect from other respiratory viruses like the seasonal flu, the hospitalization rates we’re seeing are considered to be low, especially when compared to the high hospitalization rates we saw during the public health emergencies of the pandemic.
The majority of people who are being hospitalized now tend to have pre-existing health conditions or have compromised immune systems – two factors that would make a person more susceptible to having severe illness.
COVID-19 is now a permanent part of our communities and our lives. Think about the way we approach flu season, which typically starts in October every fall. We know one of the best ways to protect ourselves and our neighbors from getting severely sick from the flu is to get the flu shot in the fall. As medical professionals, we’re approaching COVID-19 the same way, we have a vaccine, and it continues to improve.
The original vaccination series, first available in 2021, is no longer available for use. As the virus has changed the formulation of the shots have been updated to better match the variants in circulation. The updated, bivalent COVID vaccines first became available in August 2022 -- and have been reformulated this fall. The new booster doses will soon become available.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise that everyone ages 5 years and older should receive at least one dose of the updated COVID vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna to be considered up to date. Children ages 6 months to 4 years need multiple doses of COVID-19 vaccines to be up to date, including at least one dose of an updated COVID vaccine. People who are moderately or severely immunocompromised may get additional doses of the COVID vaccine.
As a medical community, we now have more experience treating COVID-19 – and there are prescription medications available for patients with milder cases to be able to get better at home and to help keep them out of the hospital.
New variants of the COVID-19 virus will continue to emerge. Scientists and public health experts are closely watching each variant to understand how they respond to vaccines and available treatments, as well as how easily a variant is transmitted from one person to another.
The best way to manage any news and trends over COVID-19 cases is to focus on what you can do: stay home if you’re sick and wash your hands frequently. Make sure you are up to date on your vaccines, including COVID-19, the flu and any other preventive shots your doctor recommends. There may be some institutions, like some hospitals or schools, that may consider face masks this fall as a precautionary measure to keep everyone as healthy as possible. However this will likely be on a case-by-case basis.
Talk to your health care provider about your vaccination history to see if you’ll need an updated COVID-19 booster dose this fall.
While COVID-19 cases will rise and fall, the best response will be to be as prepared as possible with your personal health.
James D. Grant, M.D., is chief medical officer at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.