England is again experiencing a surge in cases, reaching its highest-level COVID rates in March since the pandemic’s onset. Professor Paul Elliot, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, warned that coronavirus rates are unprecedentedly high in those over 75.
According to Imperial’s government-backed REACT-1 study – a massive surveillance project that regularly swabs 100,000 individuals, the overall COVID prevalence rate doubled last February when infection rates fell from the Omicron-led January peak. The estimated number of infected people on March 31 was 6.4%, and one in 16 revealed that the prevalence is among children and younger adults.
The National Health Service or NHS officials warned that they are behind schedule to tackle the record backlog during the pandemic due to the increasing numbers of infected patients admitted to hospitals and virus-related staff absences.
Furthermore, Professor Elliot, in charge of running the REACT study, revealed that the latest results between March 8 and 31 based on swabs of 109,000 people showed one in 16 people in England have an active coronavirus case which is the highest prevalence ever recorded. On the report, the highest rates are in the primary school-aged children reaching 9%. On the other hand, elderly adults over 75 years old have a percentage of 5%, which is alarming as they are included in the most vulnerable group.
Should the surge in COVID rates continue, it can increase hospitalisations despite widespread vaccination efforts. The last results conducted by the REACT-1 study are the final round as the program ended at the same time the UK cuts back on free COVID-19 tests. Imperial College researchers said it would become more difficult to detect and identify emerging variants as the government scaled back coronavirus testing.
The surge in cases is not just primary infections but also reinfections. With the sudden surge of cases, experts have pointed out a few reasons for the uptick.
BA.2 is more transmissible
On March 22, the World Health Organization announced a new Omicron subvariant BA.2, which has become a dominant form of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This variant shares genetic similarities with its close relative BA.1, which is responsible for the global resurgence of COVID infections worldwide. However, the BA.2 is more contagious than BA.1.
Dr. Ali Mokhad, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle, believes that BA.2 variant is undoubtedly one of the reasons why there has been an increase in reinfections in England. According to the data from the UK Health Security Agency or UKHSA, BA.2 currently accounts for the 93.7% of COVID cases in England.
A preprint from Sweden that has yet to be peer viewed suggests that BA.2 might be more transmissible due to higher viral loads in the nose and throat than the original BA.1 variant. Also, early data from the UK and Denmark showed that it is possible to be infected with BA.2 variant after being previously infected with BA.1, though less likely.
Like any other immunity to other viruses, it wanes over time. Dr. Mokdad said that the people who received their second dose, or even a booster shot, had received it five to six months ago; have waned immunity by now.
He also added that starting at three months of immunity, it begins to drop rapidly, and by five months, it would be down to 20%. Backing this statement, a January report from the UKHSA found that the effectiveness of a two-dose series of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which most people in the UK have received, declined from 50% against Omicron until it was no longer effective 20 weeks later.
On the contrary, a booster from Pfizer and Moderna raised protection against Omicron to around 60%. Unfortunately, it dropped 40% after ten weeks. Dr. Mokdad also said that people who were not infected with the original Omicron variant are at higher risk of reinfection. It is because the contracting virus would have acted as a natural booster for most healthy individuals.
Currently, there is no precise data in the UK about reinfected cases among fully jabbed and those who received booster shots. Fortunately, several studies have shown the effectiveness of booster shots in lowering the risk of reinfection.
Relaxation of COVID-19 Mitigation Measures in England
Due to more lax COVID restrictions, there have been various behavioural changes among people in England, which experts believe to be one of the reasons for the rise in infections. The UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been easing various rules regarding COVID-19 since the beginning of the year.
On February 25, he dropped all other remaining rules for the country, including the mandatory self-isolation after a positive Covid-19 test, contact tracing, and the provision of free tests for coronavirus. The changes in regulations are only applied to England, home to 56 million of the UK’s 67 million people.
People are no longer required to wear masks and completely disregard quarantine and safety measures. Many have also been treating COVID-19 like other respiratory diseases such as flu. In addition to that, Professor Daniel Altmann from the Department of Immunology and Inflammation at Imperial College said that these recent changes have led to people’s confusion regarding preventing reinfection.
As people get confused about safety, many discard safety measures when going out in public, whether to school or work. Even people who are unknowingly infected will not wear masks.
Despite the relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions and the end of the provision of free coronavirus tests, people must still observe proper safety protocols to prevent reinfection and further transmission of the virus. Should you feel any symptoms related to COVID-19, contact a reputable testing provider to get tested immediately.
Where can I get a COVID-19 test?
Harley Medic International is a government-approved testing provider and an expert in COVID-19 testing. They have many locations across the UK, ensuring that a testing centre is near you. Getting a test is as easy as booking online and finding their closest clinic. Visit their website harleymedic.co.uk to learn more.