The COVID-19 Summer Surge Is Here

Infections are on the rise as KP.3 and KP.2 dominate and the newcomer LB.1 gains ground — but rates of severe illness remain low.

covid summer wave surge
A summer wave of COVID-19 infections is affecting most states.Nanzeeba Ibnat/Getty Images
Summers nowadays bring not only anticipated sweltering heat waves, but also predicted seasonal surges in COVID-19 infections.

The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that the summer COVID-19 wave is now upon us. The newest highly transmissible variant leading a significant amount of infection is LB.1, which is causing an estimated 1 in 10 new cases.

“As of July 2, 2024, we estimate that COVID-19 infections are growing or likely growing in 39 states and territories,” reports the CDC, adding that no states right now are seeing a decline or likely decline, while in 10 states, infections are stable or uncertain.

For the week ending July 6, positive COVID-19 tests crept up by 0.8 percent, COVID-related emergency room visits jumped by more than 23 percent, and hospitalizations increased by just over 13 percent.

“We’re seeing an anticipated summer bump,” says William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease specialist and a professor of preventive medicine and health policy at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee. “COVID doesn't disappear during the summertime the way influenza does. If we look back over our past two years, we’ve had an increase during the summer months. It abates again in the fall, and then you get a real seasonal increase during the winter.”

After a busy July 4 weekend, when millions of Americans were traveling, and families and friends gathered across the nation, COVID-19 numbers may be expected to rise even higher.

“COVID figures are trending up due to a constellation of factors, including more people congregating close together, more people traveling, and more people going indoors to escape extreme heat,” says Peter Chin-Hong, MD, an infectious disease specialist and a professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine.

A new suite of variants and waning vaccine immunity may also be contributing to the problem, adds Dr. Chin-Hong.

The New Ks on the Block and the Rise of LB.1

Since COVID-19 initially swept through the world over four years ago, the virus has rapidly mutated. Many versions of the virus have been able to escape the immune defenses people have built up through previous infection or vaccination, although newer versions of COVID-19 haven’t been causing as much serious illness as the versions that occurred early on in the pandemic.

The latest strains behind more than half of all current cases are KP.3 (24.5 percent of infections), KP.2 (21.5 percent), and KP.1.1 (8.9 percent). They all belong to a family of very contagious variants called FLiRT, short for the technical names of their specific mutations.

The highly transmissible LB.1 variant is closely related to the FLiRT strains but has an extra mutation. These top four variants are all descendants of the omicron variant JN.1, which now accounts for just over 7 percent of cases but made up more than half of infections at the end of March.

Should You Get a Vaccine Now or Wait?

As the virus quickly changes, vaccine makers are trying to keep up and adjust their formulas to be more effective against circulating strains.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommended in June that the new shots be composed to take on strains from the JN.1 lineage and, if possible, specifically target the KP.2 strain.

Dr. Schaffner notes that at this point, it is highly unlikely that the fall vaccine can be adjusted any further to directly address a newly rising variant like LB.1. “There is a finite period of time to make these vaccines, get them bottled up, and distribute them,” he says. “The current dominant strains, however, are all subvariants of the omicron family, so the anticipation is that these vaccines for the KP strains will provide antibodies that will protect against LB.1.”

At the end of June, the CDC recommended that everyone age 6 months and older receive an updated 2024–2025 COVID-19 vaccine when they become available this fall.

With at least a mini COVID-19 wave happening now, people may wonder if they should wait for the new shots or take further protective action right away.

For Chin-Hong, the answer is pretty straightforward: “Did you get the vaccine approved in the fall of 2023? If not, I would go ahead and get it, especially if you are older than 65 and immunocompromised,” he says. “Those 65 and older can also get another vaccine if four months have elapsed since the last one. That will still give you the ability to get the new vaccine with the flu shot in October or November.”

How Worried Should We Be?

While emergency department visits have been rising in the United States, only Hawaii is at a stage considered “substantial”; and climbing positive test rates nationwide have not yet reached a threatening level.

Wastewater (sewage) testing, which can help scientists predict if COVID-19 is rising or falling, is showing some encouraging signs that the summer surge may soon be leveling off. Nationally, the wastewater viral activity level for COVID-19 is currently low.

Even though COVID-19 numbers overall are generally trending upward, most infections have been relatively mild, and vaccination has helped to a large degree. As the CDC says, COVID-19 vaccines are effective at protecting people from getting seriously ill, being hospitalized, and dying. Schaffner emphasizes that the COVID-19 shot turns infection from “wild” to “mild.”

Treatments such as nirmatrelvir and ritonavir (Paxlovid) and remdesivir (Veklury) have also proved to prevent an infection from becoming serious.

“Fortunately, the hospitals have not been overwhelmed as in previous years, attesting to the collective immunity in the population,” says Chin-Hong. “Still, some people are at risk of getting seriously ill: mainly those older than 75 or those who are very immunocompromised who have not gotten the latest vaccine or [been] prescribed Paxlovid or remdesivir when infected.”

Be On the Lookout for COVID-19 Symptoms

The CDC continues to warn about common COVID-19 symptoms such as congestion or runny nose, sore throat, fatigue, and headache.

Chin-Hong says he’s seeing fewer symptoms that were common in 2020, like shortness of breath and loss of taste and smell, and that some people are experiencing nausea and diarrhea — symptoms they may not realize can be linked to COVID-19.

Because COVID-19 symptoms are often similar to those of allergies (such as hay fever) or the common cold, doctors warn that the only way to know for sure is to take a COVID test — especially if you are vulnerable to severe infection (if you are older, for instance, or are immunocompromised) and want to stave off serious disease with a course of Paxlovid. You should also test if you spend time with anyone at high risk whom you might infect.

Anecdotally, some people on social media are reporting a few fairly nasty effects from the currently circulating virus. A commentator for CNBC recently wrote on X:

“Tested positive for COVID a few days ago. First three days of symptoms were worse than those of 2 years ago. Deep, lingering sore throat among them. Thank goodness for Paxlovid. Seems to be working. Mask up. The new variant appears to be making a bit of a summer surge.”

Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking

Everyday Health follows strict sourcing guidelines to ensure the accuracy of its content, outlined in our editorial policy. We use only trustworthy sources, including peer-reviewed studies, board-certified medical experts, patients with lived experience, and information from top institutions.

Sources

  1. Official Forecasts: Aug-Sep-Oct 2024. National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center. June 20, 2024.
  2. COVID Data Tracker. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. July 8, 2024.
  3. Variant Proportions. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. July 8, 2024.
  4. Current Epidemic Growth Status (Based on Rt) for States and Territories. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. July 5, 2024.
  5. Record-Breaking Travel Volumes Expected July 4th Weekend. American Automobile Association. June 26, 2024.
  6. Updated COVID-19 Vaccines for Use in the United States Beginning in Fall 2024. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. June 13, 2024.
  7. CDC Recommends Updated 2024–2025 COVID-19 and Flu Vaccines for Fall/Winter Virus Season. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. June 27, 2024.
  8. United States COVID-19 Deaths, Emergency Department (ED) Visits, and Test Positivity by Geographic Area. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. July 8, 2024.
  9. Wastewater COVID-19 National and Regional Trends. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. June 27, 2024.
  10. Benefits of Getting a COVID-19 Vaccine. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. September 22, 2023.
  11. Symptoms of COVID-19. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. March 15, 2024.
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