It might feel like we’re in a better place in the pandemic but actually, Covid cases are at an all-time high.
Infections are at their highest since records began, according to new research by the React-1 study, which has been tracking cases since March 2020. And there are multiple reasons for the surge.
Professor Lawrence Young, from Warwick Medical School, tells Huffpost UK: “These infection levels reflect a combination of insufficient vaccine uptake and the easing of restriction measures.
“Less mask wearing, more mixing indoors (particularly as the weather gets colder) and waning immunity are important contributory factors.”
Who are the cases highest among?
Researchers from the React-1 study suggest the increase is being driven by infection in children aged five to 12, and those aged 13 to 17.
The prevalence of the virus observed among the younger age group was 5.85%, while in the older bracket of children it was 5.75%.
Across England the prevalence was 1.72% overall, compared with 0.83% in September 2021.
In January this year, after the Delta variant took hold, the prevalence was estimated to be 1.57%. However, the study did not run in December last year when the peak of the second wave occurred.
The study also found there was a higher rate of the virus among those who had been in contact with a confirmed Covid case, those who lived in larger households, and those who live in households with one or more children.
So, why so many cases?
While 12 to 15-year-olds in England are eligible for Covid-19 vaccines, data suggests the uptake has been slow. And with schools reopening after half-term, the figures are expected to stay high.
Helen Ward, professor of public health at Imperial College London, said: “We know that vaccination uptake in children, the 12-plus-year-olds, is not very high and that’s where we’ve got most infection. And then there’s the question as yet undecided as to whether or not even younger children might be vaccinated.
“Children are one group where it is continuing to circulate and therefore with (the) return to school following half-term you would expect there to be more transmission going on there.”
Data suggests parents of school-aged children are also experiencing higher Covid cases than the general population, and Professor Ward pointed out that parents in this age group are often not yet eligible for booster does.
“And so if there is significant waning in the effectiveness of the vaccine after four or five months, that would overlap with that age group,” she said.
Why are the next 10 days critical?
It’s all to do with the return to school after half-term, according to Paul Elliott, director of the React programme, Imperial College London.
“Covid cases do coincide with half-term. We do know that we saw a very, very similar pattern at the same time last year, where over the half-term period, the rates dropped. And then actually they rebounded and went up again,” he said. :So I think watching what happens in the next week, 10 days, is going to be really critical.”
Should we be worried?
Commenting on the React-1 findings, Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive the the UK Health Security Agency, said the number of hospitalisations and deaths remain lower than in previous peaks, but we should still take these numbers seriously.
“These findings are a powerful reminder that the pandemic is far from over and remains a serious threat to health and wellbeing,” she said. “This new data strongly reinforces the need for all eligible age groups to get vaccinated and to take mitigating measures such as wearing a face covering in crowded places and ensuring good ventilation indoors.”
What needs to happen?
Some researchers are calling for the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) to consider vaccines for under 12s, to prevent more cases. They’re also urging teens who are currently eligible to take up their jab.
Professor Young believes the UK also needs to consider re-imposing mask-wearing and social distancing in public areas.
“In the UK we must do everything to encourage those eligible to get their booster jabs and speed up the vaccination of healthy 12 to 15-year-olds. But we can’t rely on vaccination alone to protect us all over the winter and to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed,” he says.
“With the rising number of hospitalisations, Plan B measures (work from home orders, vaccine passports, social distancing and legally-enforced mask-wearing indoors) are looking increasingly likely unless there is a significant reduction in cases over the next 10-14 days.
“Stopping the spread of the covid-19 virus will not only protect individuals from getting sick and hospitalised but will also curb the generation of new virus variants that could be more infectiousness and more able to evade vaccine-induced immunity.”