Why Are So Many People Getting Covid For The First Time?

Coronavirus is catching up with many who've managed to avoid it for two years.
Have you managed to avoid the virus all this time?
Peter Cade via Getty Images
Have you managed to avoid the virus all this time?

Have you succumbed to coronavirus yet? For many of those who managed to dodge infection for the past two years, their lucky streak is ending.

With Covid cases on the rise again – one in 25 people in England tested positive in the week ending March 5 – it’s no surprise that some people are getting infected for the first time.

There’s also a new hybrid variant, Deltacron, combining elements of Delta and Omicron, which experts are keeping a close eye on since French virologists confirmed its genomic sequence to the international Covid database, GISAID.

While health secretary Sajid Javid says Deltracron isn’t a cause for concern in the UK, the rising cases are still worrying.

We spoke to Dr Peter English, a retired consultant in communicable disease control, and past chair of the BMA Public Health Medicine Committee, about why we’re seeing so many first time Covid cases.

He tells HuffPost UK: “There are two obvious factors. One is that we have a far more infectious variant [Omicron] than the previous one. The other is relaxed restrictions. People are less cautious and less inclined to wear masks, that sort of thing, which makes quite a big difference.

“So it’s a combination of the infectious variant, and the idea that we no longer need to take precautions.”

Dr English points out that while newer variants might prompt a less severe reaction due to high vaccination levels in the population, the virus can still cause long Covid and symptoms in children.

“There will be an element of people having exercised caution in the past [who] are now coming out and meeting more people,” he says.

“If you travel in places where there are people who are infected but not wearing masks – masks are far more effective at preventing spread from an infectious person – the likelihood of encountering the virus is greater.”

High vaccination rates might also be playing a part in this, he adds. “We know that vaccination reduces considerably your chances of being infected but it doesn’t eliminate it. But it does mean that you’re less likely to be symptomatic if you do get infected. So there might be more asymptomatic people.”

If asymptomatic people, unaware that they’ve got the virus, socialise more freely, it can mean people catching it more easily. A lot of remote workers are also returning to the workplace, points out Dr English, which has an impact.

So is this surge in cases something that might become a bit of a pattern? There will certainly be further new variants, says Dr English.

“When new variants become common, it’s because they have an advantage over existing variants,” he says. “So we know that we will get new variants and they will be more transmissible, because that’s how it works.”

Nor can we assume that future variants will necessarily be milder. “That’s a reassuring myth,” he says. “It’s not true. We are very lucky that the Omicron variant was BA.1 and BA.2 and not more virulent than the previous variants, but a future variant that becomes more infectious might also be more virulent.”

Face masks may no longer be mandatory, at least not in England, and we may not be doing as much rigorous hand washing as we used to do – but it might just be time to pick up old – and good – habits again.

Experts are still learning about Covid-19. The information in this story is what was known or available at the time of publication, but guidance could change as scientists discover more about the virus. To keep up to date with health advice and cases in your area, visit gov.uk/coronavirus and nhs.uk.

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