What are COVID surges?

A COVID surge may be just ahead. What is considered a real surge in the eyes of the CDC?

Since April 14, 2020, over 85,921,461 total cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the United States alone. Many of these cases occur in clusters, which are called “surges” in the official lexicon.

What are COVID-19 surges? Why do they happen, and what can be done about them? Here’s our take in brief.

COVID surge: definition and meaning

According to Merriam-Webster, the word “surge” can be used to describe when something rises “suddenly” in value, to an “excessive or abnormal” amount.

Piggybacking off of this definition, authorities like the CDC and the WHO have adopted the term to refer to sudden, urgent spikes in COVID-19 case reports that tend to happen at predictable times of the year and in specific regions seasonally, much like the flu during flu season.

Mostly, the concept of COVID surges emerges from trends in data from the CDC since the beginning of the pandemic. What counts as a COVID surge, and how does the CDC predict when the next one will hit?

What is a COVID-19 surge, according to the CDC?

A COVID surge can broadly be defined as any spike in case reports that may overwhelm the local points of care responsible for managing them. 

There are a number of precautions that they advise communities to adopt during these periods, including sheltering in place, city-wide lockdowns, and extra social distancing whenever possible.

The CDC offers healthcare providers this handy spreadsheet tool that can be used to estimate how many new hospitalizations they can expect during the next projected COVID surge. The CDC uses this tool to help healthcare facilities and professionals plan for the next wave of new cases accordingly, preventing long wait times, supply shortages, and other factors that may result in lapses in care.

Why do COVID surges happen?

According to some, COVID surges are a simple matter of season—too many peoples stuck indoors, sharing the air and infecting one another. Correlations in some parts of the South, even during the warmer months, however, suggest that a lack of vaccination or a lack of accessible healthcare might also play a role in surging case reports.

Florida is one notable exception—it’s warm there year-round, and its vaccination rates are above average when compared to the rest of the nation. 

New COVID-19 subvariants are another important factor to take into consideration—Delta and Omicron were so different from their predecessors (32 mutations removed, to be precise), for example, that breakthrough cases superseding even a complete vaccination series became commonplace, enough to warrant the CDC’s booster program.

Comorbidities and preexisting conditions can also cause very small, self-contained surges in populations that may be immunocompromised and more at risk than the average person. Since January 2020, approximately 15% of COVID-related deaths took place in residential nursing home facilities. This figure doesn’t even include staff cases, which total 1,045,742 since June of the same year.

There is no single reason to blame for COVID surges nationally, but, rather, an amalgamation of competing factors that all can be identified and minimized in their own right. 

How to prevent COVID surges

There really is no way to stop a surge from happening—instead, public health experts speak to the value of vaccination, natural immunity, and good social hygiene practices on a large scale. Understanding what makes a city, region, arrangement, or population high-risk has been one important part of the solution, and we have plenty of data to light the way. 

According to Eric Toner, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, people tend to be very reactive to the headlines they see, adjusting their behavior accordingly. During lulls in case reports, ordinary people tend to drop their guard. Then, when another media storm hits their newsfeeds, they pick up right where they left off: avoiding large gatherings, staying home whenever possible, and other means of self-protection.

Our advice? Test often and exercise caution whenever possible, especially during surge season. At the end of the day, self-responsibility is key—do your part for your family, your community, and yourself. 

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