Ongoing COVID-19 surge heralds another winter of death

Registered nurse Erin Beauchemin monitors an Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) machine connected to a patient in the COVID-19 Intensive Care Unit at Harborview Medical Center Friday in Seattle [AP Photo/Elaine Thompson]

Another winter of death is now unfolding in the United States and across the Northern Hemisphere as the JN.1 variant of the coronavirus continues to surge globally. Wastewater data from the United States released Tuesday indicate that upwards of 2 million people are now being infected with COVID-19 each day, amid the second-highest wave of mass infection since the pandemic began, eclipsed only by the initial wave of the Omicron variant during the winter of 2021-22.

There are now reports on social media of hospitals being slammed with COVID patients across the US, Canada and Europe. At a growing number of hospitals, waiting rooms are overflowing, emergency rooms and ICUs are at or near capacity, and ambulances are turned away or forced to wait for hours to drop off their patients.

According to official figures, COVID-19 hospitalizations in Charlotte, North Carolina, are now at their highest levels of the entire pandemic. In Toronto, Dr. Michael Howlett, President of the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians, told City News, “I’ve worked in emergency departments since 1987, and it’s by far the worst it’s ever been. It’s not even close.” He added, “We’ve got people dying in waiting rooms because we don’t have a place to put them. People being resuscitated on an ambulance stretcher or a floor.”

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Dr. Joseph Khabbaza, a pulmonary and critical care specialist at the Cleveland Clinic, told TODAY, “The current strain right now seems to be packing a meaner punch than the prior strains. Some features of the current circulating strain probably (make it) a little bit more virulent and pathogenic, making people sicker than prior (variants).”

Indeed, two recent studies indicate that JN.1 appears to more efficiently infect cells in the lower lung, a trait that existed in pre-Omicron strains which were considered more deadly. One study from researchers in Germany and France noted that BA.2.86, the variant nicknamed “Pirola” from which JN.1 evolved, “has regained a trait characteristic of early SARS-CoV-2 lineages: robust lung cell entry. The variant might constitute an elevated health threat as compared to previous Omicron sublineages.”

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