Aug. 30, 2023 – COVID-19 hospitalizations have been on the rise for weeks as summer nears its end, but how concerned should you be? SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID, continues to evolve and surprise us. So COVID transmission, hospitalization, and death rates can be difficult to predict. 

WebMD turned to the experts for their take on the current circulating virus, asking them to predict if we’ll be masking up again anytime soon, and what this fall and winter might look like, especially now that testing and vaccinations are no longer free of charge.

Question 1: Are you expecting an end-of-summer COVID wave to be substantial?

Eric Topol, MD: “This wave won’t likely be substantial and could be more of a ‘wavelet.’ I’m not thinking that physicians are too concerned,” said Topol, founder and director of Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, CA, and editor-in-chief of Medscape Medical News, our sister news site for health care professionals. 

Thomas Gut, DO: “It’s always impossible to predict the severity of COVID waves. Although the virus has generally mutated in ways that favor easier transmission and milder illness, there have been a handful of surprising mutations that were more dangerous and deadly then the preceding strain,” said Gut, associate chair of medicine at Staten Island University Hospital/Northwell Health in New York City.

Robert Atmar, MD: “I’ll start with the caveat that prognosticating for SARS-CoV-2 is a bit hazardous as we remain in unknown territory for some aspects of its epidemiology and evolution,” said Atmar, a professor of infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “It depends on your definition of substantial. We, at least in Houston, are already in the midst of a substantial surge in the burden of infection, at least as monitored through wastewater surveillance. The amount of virus in the wastewater already exceeds the peak level we saw last winter. That said, the increased infection burden has not translated into large increases in hospitalizations for COVID-19. Most persons hospitalized in our hospital are admitted with infection, not for the consequences of infection.”

Stuart Campbell Ray, MD: “It looks like there is a rise in infections, but the proportional rise in hospitalizations from severe cases is lower than in the past, suggesting that folks are protected by the immunity we’ve gained over the past few years through vaccination and prior infections. Of course, we should be thinking about how that applies to each of us – how recently we had a vaccine or COVID-19, and whether we might see more severe infections as immunity wanes,” said Ray, who is a professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. 

Question 2: Is a return to masks or mask mandates coming this fall or winter?

Topol: “Mandating masks doesn’t work very well, but we may see wide use again if a descendant of [variant] BA.2.86 takes off.”

Gut: “It’s difficult to predict if there are any mask mandates returning at any point. Ever since the Omicron strains emerged, COVID has been relatively mild, compared to previous strains, so there probably won’t be any plan to start masking in public unless a more deadly strain appears.”

Atmar: “I do not think we will see a return to mask mandates this fall or winter for a variety of reasons. The primary one is that I don’t think the public will accept mask mandates. However, I think masking can continue to be an adjunctive measure to enhance protection from infection, along with booster vaccination.”

Ray: “Some people will choose to wear masks during a surge, particularly in situations like commuting where they don’t interfere with what they’re doing. They will wear masks particularly if they want to avoid infection due to concerns about others they care about, disruption of work or travel plans, or concerns about long-term consequences of repeated COVID-19.”

Question 3: Now that COVID testing and vaccinations are no longer free of charge, how might that affect their use?

Topol: “It was already low, and this will undoubtedly further compromise their uptake.”

Gut: “I do expect that testing will become less common now that tests are no longer free. I’m sure there will be a lower amount of detection in patients with milder or asymptomatic disease compared to what we had previously.”

Atmar: “If there are out-of-pocket costs for the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, or if the administrative paperwork attached to getting a vaccine is increased, the uptake of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines will likely decrease. It will be important to communicate to the populations targeted for vaccination the potential benefits of such vaccination.”

 Ray: “A challenge with COVID-19, all along, has been disparities in access to care, and this will be worse without public support for prevention and testing. This applies to everyone but is especially burdensome for those who are often marginalized in our health care system and society in general. I hope that we’ll find ways to ensure that people who need tests and vaccinations are able to access them, as good health is in everyone’s interest.”

Question 4: Will the new vaccines against COVID work for the currently circulating variants?

Topol: “The XBB.1.5 boosters will be out Sept. 14. They should help versus EG.5.1 and FL.1.5.1. The FL.1.5.1 variant is gaining now.”

Gut: “In the next several weeks, we expect the newer monovalent XBB-based vaccines to be offered that offer good protection against current circulating COVID variants along with the new Eris variant.”

Atmar: “The vaccines are expected to induce immune responses to the currently circulating variants, most of which are strains that evolved from the vaccine strain. The vaccine is expected to be most effective in preventing severe illness and will likely be less effective in preventing infection and mild illness.”

Ray: “Yes, the updated vaccine design has a spike antigen (XBB.1.5) nearly identical to the current dominant variant (EG.5). Even as variants change, the boosters stimulate B cells and T cells to help protect in a way that is safer than getting COVID-19 infection.”

Question 5: Is there anything we should watch out for regarding the BA.2.86 variant in particular?

Topol: “The scenario could change if there are new functional mutations added to it.”

Gut: “BA.2.86 is still fairly uncommon and does not have much data to directly make any informed guesses. However, in general, people that have been exposed to more recent mutations of the COVID virus have been shown to have more protection from newer upcoming mutations. It’s fair to guess that people that have not had recent infection from COVID, or have not had a recent booster, are at higher risk for being infected by any XBB- or BA.2-based strains.”

Atmar: BA.2.86 has been designated as a variant under monitoring. We will want to see whether it becomes more common and if there are any unexpected characteristics associated with infection by this variant.”

Ray: “It’s still rare, but it’s been seen in geographically dispersed places, so it’s got legs. The question is how effectively it will bypass some of the immunity we’ve gained. T cells are likely to remain protective, because they target so many parts of the virus that change more slowly, but antibodies from B cells to spike protein may have more trouble recognizing BA.2.86, whether those antibodies were made to a vaccine or a prior variant.”

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