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Call it what you’d like, the fourth wave of COVID-19 is real, experts say

Dr. Iahn Gonsenhauser with OSU Wexner Medical Center, says the increase is being driven by a number of factors, including new variants and COVID-19 fatigue.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A fourth wave, a fourth surge, a fourth peak – whatever the phrase, medical experts say it’s real.

“I think it doesn’t matter so much what we call it but just that we understand there is an uptick in the number of new cases that we’re observing right now,” said Dr. Iahn Gonsenhauser, chief quality and patient safety officer for the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

“And I think we should all be prepared that. While we’re seeing a general downward trend in total number of cases, and while we are moving toward the end of the pandemic, we’re going to see these fluctuations in the numbers occasionally.”

On Wednesday, the Ohio Department of Health reported 2,064 new cases of COVID-19 and 169 hospitalizations. And the case numbers are still far from that projected goal of 50 cases per 100,000 people, which would prompt Gov. Mike DeWine to lift all state health orders.

“We’re assuming that this (increase in cases) is likely driven by a lot of people getting pretty tired of precautions and the restrictions and the isolation,” Dr. Gonsenhauser said.

“We know that people are starting to head back out into the public space more frequently, more gatherings and things of that nature, and that’s all part of what is driving this. In addition, we know that there are new variants that are a bit better at transmitting between individuals. And that’s driving this as well.”

Those variants include the strain first discovered in Britain, which is now the most common version of coronavirus in the United States. That strain is more transmissible and infectious among younger people.

But Dr. Gonsenhauser points out that the vaccines currently authorized for emergency use in the U.S. are proving to be effective against those strains. He adds it is not at all surprising to see these new variants develop.

“Viruses like this, one of the things that people have to realize about the natural progression of any pathogen of this nature, they continue to try to create better versions of themselves, and that’s what the variants are,” he said. “So the variants come along randomly. They have an evolutionary advantage. And what we see is they drive additional spread of the virus in its new form. And eventually we won’t see the original virus anymore."

And while the focus has often been on hospitalizations and deaths rather than case numbers, Dr. Gosenhauser said there is still a reason to pay attention to those rising case numbers.

That’s because they offer the first insight into what might be on the way. Hospitalizations and deaths, by their very nature, follow the initial positive tests.

And, while the vaccines have offered a huge amount of hope and started to move the world out of this pandemic, it’s not time to let up on the basic COVID-19 precautions quite yet.

“I think the focus right now is that we are moving into the end phase of the pandemic, and we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, we are getting to the point where things are starting to go back to normal, and it’s not far off where, a lot of what we’ve experienced is going to feel like a thing of the past,” Dr. Gonsenhauser said.

Even though about 100 million Americans have been vaccinated with at least one dose, Dr. Gonsenhauser said that number has to be higher before we can really see things de-escalate.

"Stay in that zone where you’re thinking about those precautions that we’ve been hammering on for the past year. I know nobody wants to talk about masks anymore. We’re all tired of it. But we’ve got a little bit more of a commitment before we’re through the end of this, but we’re getting there," Dr. Gonsenhauser said.