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NYC COVID cases up 250% in 2 months — and this variant’s harder to duck

New York is experiencing a bump in COVID cases that might put a damper on people’s summer plans.

Cases have been rising nationally and locally for about two months, driven by so-called “FLiRT” variants — versions of the virus that have evolved to evade immunity.

Mandatory COVID mitigation measures have largely been waived, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has eased its recommendations for how long people should isolate themselves after getting sick. But there are still precautions people can take to avoid getting COVID or spreading it to others.

Here’s what to know about the latest COVID wave.

How big is the current COVID wave?

New York City data shows an average of 687 cases of COVID reported per day during the week ending on June 22, 250% higher than the amount reported two months prior. That same week, there was an average of 53 COVID-related hospitalizations each day — primarily involving older adults — and one death, according to city data.

A decline in testing means COVID case counts don’t necessarily show the full picture, according to public health experts. Based on state wastewater testing data, New York City appears to be experiencing a bump in COVID similar to the increase seen last summer. Current levels of the virus, however, are far lower than what was detected during a surge last winter.

Infectious disease experts say COVID is starting to follow a predictable pattern, with a surge in the fall when temperatures start to drop and people gather indoors, and a smaller bump in the summer.

In the summer, “there are family gatherings, there are weddings,” noted Dr. Jessica Justman, an epidemiologist and professor at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health. And while people are more likely to spend time outdoors, where the virus is less likely to spread, “we also spend time indoors when we have a heat wave like we had last week.”

What do we know about the FLiRT variants?

Many people have developed some level of immunity against the virus, either through vaccination or past infection. While “FLiRT” variants can slip past that immunity, having some immunity still tends to make symptoms milder, said Andrew Pekosz, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who researches respiratory viruses.

“Overall, disease severity is dropping,” he added.

Dr. Aaron Glatt, chair of the medicine department and chief of infectious diseases at Mount Sinai South Nassau, agreed that the current strains of COVID that are circulating do not appear to be causing serious illness in most cases.

“It’s the typical COVID presentations,” Glatt said of patients he’s seen. “They have a cough. They may have some upper respiratory symptoms like a cold, runny nose.”

Glatt said he has seen more severe cases where people are experiencing shortness of breath, and is still concerned about older patients and those who are otherwise at high risk for severe disease. But he said it’s now rare for COVID patients to need to be placed in intensive care units.

What should I do if I get sick?

Until recently, the CDC recommended that people who tested positive for COVID isolate themselves for several days. But in March, responding to declining cases and disease severity overall, it revised that guidance to instead focus on a given individual’s symptoms.

The latest guidance — which applies to a variety of respiratory illnesses — calls for sick people to stay away from others until their symptoms have been improving for at least 24 hours and they haven’t had fevers for at least 24 hours.

In the five days after isolating, the CDC suggests practicing good hygiene, wearing a mask and not standing too close to other people.

The CDC notes that a COVID test can give a “rough approximation” of whether someone is still infectious, but advises that people should follow the same guidance regardless of whether they’re sick from COVID or another respiratory illness.

Glatt said people in recovery should use common sense, including avoiding visiting older relatives or people who are at high risk for severe COVID.

“When you’re starting to feel better, I would certainly let the other people around you know, ‘I recently had COVID,’” he added.

Where can I get tested for COVID?

New York City’s once ubiquitous dedicated COVID testing sites have largely disappeared. But tests are still available at NYC Health and Hospitals locations, urgent care centers and other medical providers.

Many New Yorkers are now more accustomed to reaching for home testing kits, but they are also more likely now to have to go to the pharmacy and pay for them out of pocket. Insurers may cover home testing kits but are no longer required to since the federal COVID public health emergency expired in spring of 2023. The federal program distributing free COVID tests has also ended.

The city previously distributed free kits as well, but that program ended in March after about 150 million free rapid tests were handed out, according to city health department spokesperson Patrick Gallahue.

Those who do take home tests should remember that it can take a couple of days after exposure to test positive. It’s possible to report home-testing results online here.

When should I get my next COVID shot?

Although the CDC says adults over 65 can get an updated COVID vaccine every four months, Glatt said once a year is likely appropriate for most people.

Pekosz said the vaccines that are currently available are not very well-suited to the strains of COVID that are circulating, and people who are looking to get a shot should likely wait until updated vaccines come out in a couple of months.

“This coming fall’s COVID vaccine will be a better match, although again, it probably won’t be perfect,” since the virus continues to evolve, he said.

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