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July 31, 2023

COVID-19 cases are rising in the U.S., but the risk remains 'low' in Philadelphia

Summer travel and indoor gatherings prompted by hot temperatures have led to an uptick, experts say. But transmission rates remain near historic lows

COVID-19 cases are increasing again, nearly three months after the federal government ended the public health emergency. But health experts say the uptick may not be as severe or prolonged as previous summer bumps.

Multiple indicators — including hospital admissions, emergency department visits, test positivity and wastewater levels — suggest COVID-19 cases are increasing nationally, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Weekly hospitalizations are up 10.3% and Helix – a gene sequencing company that helps the CDC track changes in the coronavirus – says COVID-19 cases are up 30% to 40% since June based on its samples, CNN reported. The concentration of COVID-19 in U.S. wastewater has doubled in the last month, the first significant increase since last winter.

But cases still remain relatively low overall because they were very low when the uptick began, and experts say the increase does not appear to be driven by a new variant. Preexisting immunity from illness and vaccines should make most cases mild, but any uptick inevitably will cause more severe cases, experts say

"U.S. COVID-19 rates are still near historic lows after seven months of steady declines," CDC spokesperson Kathleen Conley told CBS News. "The U.S. has experienced increases in COVID-19 during the past three summers, so it's not surprising to see an uptick."

In Philadelphia, hospital admission rates and COVID-19 deaths have not spiked this summer and remain low, according to health department data

"We're not seeing anything remarkable here in Philadelphia at this time," said James Garrow, communications director of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. "It's still important for people who are sick to stay home and to wear a mask if they do have to go out, and for people to be up to date on their vaccines, but otherwise this remains a time that people can enjoy seeing each other. At this stage, based on the numbers we are seeing, the benefits of social interaction outweigh the low risk for COVID-19 for most people." 

Here are the COVID symptoms and prevention tips to be aware of this summer:

COVID-19 symptoms

COVID-19 may cause the following symptoms, according to the CDC:

• Fever or chills
• Cough
• Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
• Fatigue
• Muscle or body aches
• Headache
• New loss of taste or smell
• Sore throat
• Congestion or runny nose
• Nausea or vomiting
• Diarrhea

Anyone experiencing these symptoms is advised to get tested for COVID-19.

Emergency medical attention should be sought if someone experiences emergency warning signs like trouble breathing, persistent chest pain, confusion, inability to stay awake or discolored skin, lips or nail beds. Older adults and people with underlying medical conditions, like heart or lung disease or diabetes, are at higher risk of getting severely sick from COVID.

Causes and prevention

The late summer COVID surge is likely driven by human behavior, as many people are traveling this summer or congregating indoors due to record-breaking heat, experts said. 

"We are in a very warm year and people are spending a lot of time indoors," Dr. Luis Ostrosky, chief of infectious diseases and epidemiology at UTHealth Houston and Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, told the Wall Street Journal. "People are congregating in air-conditioned settings and that is providing an opportunity for transmission."

This, coupled with waning immunity, may contribute to the rising number of cases. U.S. vaccination numbers suggest that much time has passed since most Americans have gotten a COVID booster. 

People are advised to stay up to date on their vaccines to bolster immunity. New single-strain COVID vaccines will arrive in the U.S. this fall, targeting the omicron subvariant XBB.1.5.

Experts also suggest using rapid tests when people feel unwell or are planning to attend crowded indoor events. 

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