The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned of “concerning trends” for COVID-19 ahead of winter as a dangerous new strain runs rampant across the Northern Hemisphere.
The UN health agency estimates that hundreds of thousands of people around the world are currently hospitalized with the virus. However, the true number could be much higher because many countries have stopped reporting Covid data.
“We continue to see concerning trends for COVID-19 ahead of the winter season in the Northern Hemisphere,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told an online press conference.
He added: “Deaths are increasing in some parts of the Middle East and Asia, intensive care unit admissions are increasing in Europe and hospitalizations are increasing in several regions.”
America has also seen a surge in cases as a new variant, designated BA.2.86, gains a foothold in the country as winter approaches.
According to a recent bulletin in Yale Medicine, the new variant has more than 30 mutations to its spike protein – located on the outer surface of a coronavirus – which helps it enter and infect human cells.
“Such a high number of mutations is notable,” infectious disease specialist Dr Scott Roberts said.
“When we went from [Omicron variant] XBB.1.5 to [Eris] EG.5, that was maybe one or two mutations.
“But these massive shifts, which we also saw from Delta to Omicron, are worrisome.”
Schools across America are reinstating mask mandates in response to the surge in cases.
Kinterbish Junior High School in Alabama has asked all students, staff and visitors to start wearing face masks in classrooms and hallways “due to the slow rise of Covid cases in the area” in recent weeks.
Alabama’s Talladega City School district which is home to more than 1,700 students has also urged children and staff to wear masks, but stressed they are “encouraged but not required”.
And Maryland elementary school became embroiled in controversy this week after saying students must don tightly fitted N95 masks for 10 days, despite a smattering of cases.
New York health officials are also ramping up their messaging around masks, dispensing them to schools in the state while face coverings are being strongly encouraged in some classrooms in Los Angeles.
With influenza and RSV also circulating, Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, emphasized the importance of testing, as well as vaccination.
However, preliminary data suggests that existing vaccines will give a degree of protection against BA.2.86, she said.