Study: Over half of Americans have had COVID-19 infections

A Transportation Security Administration officer walks past an airline passenger not wearing a face mask following the end of COVID-19 public transportation face mask rules in the Denver International Airport in Colorado on April 19, 2022. (PATRICK T. FALLON / AFP)

BRUSSELS / MADRID / WASHINGTON / GENEVA / LONDON / MEXICO CITY –  Following the record surge in COVID-19 cases during the Omicron-driven wave, some 58 percent of the US population overall and more than 75 percent of younger children have been infected with the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, according to a US nationwide blood survey released on Tuesday.

The study issued by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention marks the first time in which more than half of the US population has been infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus at least once, and offers a detailed view of the impact of the Omicron surge in the United States

The study issued by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention marks the first time in which more than half of the US population has been infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus at least once, and offers a detailed view of the impact of the Omicron surge in the United States.

Before Omicron arrived in December of 2021, a third of the US population had evidence of a prior SARS-CoV-2 infection.

Omicron drove up infections in every age group, according to the new data, but children and adolescents, many of whom remain unvaccinated, had the highest rates of infection, while people 65 and older – a heavily vaccinated population – had the lowest.

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During the December to February period – when Omicron cases were raging in the United States – 75.2 percent of children aged 11 and younger had infection-related antibodies in their blood, up from 44.2 percent in the prior three-month period. Among those 12-17, 74.2 percent carried antibodies, up from 45.6 percent from September to December.

Scientists looked for specific antibodies produced in response to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that are only present after an infection and are not generated by COVID-19 vaccines. Trace amounts of these antibodies can remain in the blood for as long as two years.

US COVID-19 infections are on the upswing, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told reporters during the briefing, rising 22.7 percent in the past week to 44,000 per day. Hospitalizations rose for the second week in a row, up 6.6 percent, largely driven by subvariants of Omicron.

While deaths fell 13.2 percent, week-over-week, the United States is fast approaching the grim milestone of 1 million total COVID-related deaths.

In certain counties with high COVID-19 community spread, the CDC now recommends people wear a mask in public indoor settings. It cited upstate New York and the Northeast region as areas where hospitalizations have been rising.

Walensky said the CDC continues to recommend masking in all indoor public transportation settings, and stressed that vaccination remains the safest strategy for preventing complications from COVID-19.

More than 66 percent of the US population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and nearly 46 percent of had a booster, according to federal data.

Five-year-old Noah is inoculated with the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine for children at a vaccination centre set up at a car dealership in Iserlohn, western Germany on Jan 5, 2022. (NA FASSBENDER / AFP)

EU

The European Commission is set to say the EU has entered a new post-emergency phase of the pandemic in which testing should be targeted and monitoring of COVID-19 cases should be similar to sample-based flu surveillance, according to a draft document seen by Reuters.

The shift comes amid a gradual drop of cases and a fall in the number of deaths linked to COVID-19, thanks to the spread of the less virulent Omicron variant and the immunisation of over 70 percent of the EU population, with half of the population having received also a booster shot

The shift comes amid a gradual drop of cases and a fall in the number of deaths linked to COVID-19, thanks to the spread of the less virulent Omicron variant and the immunisation of over 70 percent of the EU population, with half of the population having received also a booster shot.

"This Communication puts forward an approach for the management of the pandemic in the coming months, moving from emergency to a more sustainable mode," the EU draft document says.

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The Commission had no comment.

The World Health Organization is in charge of declaring a pandemic and the end of it, a move that has vast legal implications for a large variety of sectors, including insurers and vaccine makers. The UN agency has said the pandemic is not over.

The EU's document is non-binding and comes with clear warnings that "COVID-19 is here to stay", likely with the emergence of new variants, and therefore "vigilance and preparedness remain essential."

The draft document, prepared by Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides and set to be adopted on Wednesday, warns that new surges are possible and recommends EU governments keep up their guard and be ready to return to emergency measures if needed.

However, it also acknowledges that a new phase has started and that a new approach is needed to monitor the pandemic.

That means that mass testing, whereby people with symptoms and their contacts must undergo a test, has been already dropped in some EU states.

The Commission recognizes this shift, noting that less testing could make it harder to interpret epidemiological data.

That is in line with warnings from the WHO head General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus who on Tuesday urged countries to maintain surveillance of coronavirus infections, saying the world was "blind" to how the virus was spreading because of falling rates of testing. 

To address this situation, Brussels encourages the introduction of more sophisticated ways of detecting outbreaks.

Italy

Italy's Prime Minister Mario Draghi has tested negative for COVID-19, a spokesperson said on Wednesday, adding the premier would be back at his office in Palazzo Chigi this morning.

Draghi had tested positive on April 18 and was forced to miss a trip to Africa last week.

Mexico

Mexico will let all children aged over 12 be registered for COVID-19 vaccination from Thursday, Deputy Health Minister Hugo Lopez-Gatell said.

Lopez-Gatell, the country's coronavirus czar, was speaking at a regular government news conference on Tuesday.

Spain

COVID-19 infections in Spain have risen sharply following the elimination of the mandatory wearing of facemasks indoors, data published Tuesday by the Ministry of Health showed.

The Ministry reported that the 14-day incidence of the virus rose from 555.47 cases per 100,000 inhabitants to 608.16 in people aged 60 and over between April 22 and 26.

The Health Ministry now only publishes the 14-day incidence for the over-60's and not the population as a whole.

This was accompanied by an increase in hospital occupancy by COVID-19 patients to just over 5 percent, although the number of intensive care beds occupied by COVID-19 patients increased only slightly to 4 percent.

Authorities attributed the increases to the greater social interaction during the Easter holidays and the end of the mandatory use of facemasks indoors, which came into effect on April 20, just after the Easter break.

US Vice-President Kamala Harris speaks about the recently signed infrastructure law will benefit Ohioans after touring the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union Local 189, Nov 19, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio. (JAY LAPRETE / AP)

US

US Vice-President Kamala Harris tested positive for COVID-19 on rapid and PCR tests on Tuesday, her spokesperson said.

"She has exhibited no symptoms, will isolate and continue to work from the vice president's residence," the spokesperson said in a statement.

Harris, 57, has not been a close contact to US President Joe Biden or the first lady "due to their respective recent travel schedules," the statement said.

The vice-president will follow CDC guidelines and the advice of her physicians and will return to the White House when she tests negative, it added.

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a press conference at the WHO headquarters in Geneva on Dec 20, 2021.
(FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP)

WHO

The head of the World Health Organization on Tuesday urged countries to maintain surveillance of coronavirus infections, saying the world was "blind" to how the virus is spreading because of falling testing rates.

"As many countries reduce testing, WHO is receiving less and less information about transmission and sequencing," Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news conference at the UN agency's headquarters in Geneva.

"This makes us increasingly blind to patterns of transmission and evolution."

"When it comes to a deadly virus, ignorance is not bliss. The WHO continues to call on all countries to maintain surveillance," he said.

Bill Rodriguez, chief executive of FIND, a global aid group working with WHO on expanding access to testing, said "testing rates have plummeted by 70 to 90 percent."

"We have an unprecedented ability to know what is happening. And yet today, because testing has been the first casualty of a global decision to let down our guard, we are becoming blind to what is happening with this virus," he said.

Responding to the European Union's recent decision to enter a new post-emergency phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Program, cautioned that this is not the time to lose focus on the virus nor on its potential to continue to evolve.

"The fact is that we're not out of this yet," he said.

Maria van Kerkhove, technical lead for the WHO's Health Emergencies Program, said that despite the recent positive trends, she had "little confidence in the number of cases being reported around the world" due to the massive changes in testing strategies and the huge reductions in the number of tests being performed around the world.

"On the positive side, we do see a change. We are in a different phase of this pandemic, certainly, but we are still very much in the middle of this pandemic, and this is still a global problem," she said.

"Now is not the time to retreat. Now is the time to really strengthen what we have put in place and ensure that we keep people alive, and we get our economies back on track and we save people's livelihoods," she noted.