Dec 19, 2023 - Health

COVID-19 levels high ahead of holiday travel season

COVID-19 activity in U.S. wastewater
Data: CDC; Map: Alice Feng/Axios

Wastewater analysis sites nationwide are showing high levels of COVID-19 as we head into the holiday travel season, per the latest CDC data.

  • Almost every state reporting such data is showing at least "high" levels compared to baseline trends, with many reporting "very high" levels, as defined by the CDC.

Why it matters: While many Americans by this point have some combination of natural and vaccine-induced immunity, COVID can still make people plenty sick and force them to miss school, work (if they can) and holiday activities.

  • It also remains a potentially fatal threat for vulnerable groups, like the elderly and immunocompromised.
  • There have been nearly 67,200 deaths related to COVID-19 so far this year, per provisional CDC data. That's down significantly from approximately 246,200 last year and 463,300 in 2021, but still a considerable toll.

Plus: Some evidence suggests that multiple exposures can have a kind of cumulative negative effect, though research here remains ongoing.

By the numbers: As of early December, 22 states had "very high" COVID-19 wastewater levels as defined by the CDC, which compares current rates to baseline measurements at sites nationwide. (Read more about the agency's methodology here.)

  • Many of the states with "very high" levels are concentrated in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic.

Meanwhile, the CDC recently sounded the alarm on low levels of COVID-19, flu and RSV vaccinations so far this season.

Of note: Wastewater analysis is one of the best methods for tracking the spread of COVID-19 these days, given how few people are testing and how few of those results are reported to local or state health officials.

Yes, but: It's a relatively new method of tracking contagions that's still getting fleshed out.

  • One important caveat here: While some states have dozens of wastewater reporting sites, some only have a handful, one or none at all.
  • The above map factors in data from all available sites across each state — so states with, say, just one wastewater analysis site are categorized according to the findings at that site, even if that data may not accurately reflect local spread across the entire state.

The bottom line: All that said, there's enough data here to pretty clearly show a worsening COVID-19 situation — especially when considered alongside other metrics, like hospitalizations, which are rising in many of the places with "very high" wastewater rates.

  • That's not entirely surprising, given how COVID has surged in winters past. But it's still a reminder that the most vulnerable may want to take extra precautions this holiday season, like masking up, skipping big crowds and so on.
Go deeper