Most Americans Have Had COVID-19

Some 60% of us, including 75% of our children, have been infected.

On the same day it was reported that Vice President Kamala Harris has tested positive, the CDC announced that 60 percent of all Americans and 75 percent of all American children have been infected with SARS-CoV-2.

Their write-up is not aimed at the lay reader, so here’s WaPo‘s report (“Coronavirus has infected majority of Americans, blood tests indicate.”):

Before omicron, one-third of Americans had been infected with the coronavirus, but by the end of February, that rate had climbed to nearly 60 percent, including 3 out of 4 children, according to federal health data released Tuesday.

The data from blood tests offers the first evidence that over half the U.S. population, roughly 190 million people, has been infected at least once since the pandemic began. That is more than double the official case count. Many of those infections are likely to have been asymptomatic or with few symptoms. The virus has killed nearly 1 million Americans and caused disruptions that have driven up death rates from other causes, including cancer and heart disease.

Officials cautioned, however, that the data, drawn from tens of thousands of blood samples from across the country, does not indicate people have protection against the virus going forward, especially against increasingly transmissible variants that may be able to evade antibodies. Previous infections are believed to offer some protection against severe disease for most people, especially when combined with vaccinations. But the natural waning of antibodies and an ever-evolving virus create opportunities for reinfection.

“We continue to recommend that everyone be up to date on their vaccinations, get your primary series and booster, when eligible,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during a media briefing.

“We don’t know how long [ago] that infection was,” she said of antibodies from past infections. “We don’t know whether that protection has waned. We don’t know as much about that level of protection than we do about the protection we get from both vaccines and boosters.”

The CDC report offers confirmation of what experts suspected: Most people in the country have had at least one coronavirus infection. Close to half of those got that infection in recent months when the omicron variant swept the nation. That variant, first identified in southern Africa, had so many mutations it could easily infect people who had antibodies from previous bouts of the virus or whose antibodies were generated by a vaccine.

Antibodies serve as a front-line defense against viral infections, and they wane naturally over time. Meanwhile the virus continues to mutate into new variants and subvariants that can partially evade the immunity provided by vaccines or previous infections.

“Anecdotally, I hear a lot about people who have had it two or three times,” said Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University. “We still don’t know how much more this virus can produce radically immune-evasive variants, as we saw with delta and omicron.”

The NYT report (“More than half of Americans have been infected with the coronavirus at least once, the C.D.C. says.“) is somewhat more optimistic:

While the numbers came as a shock to many Americans, some scientists said they had expected the figures to be even higher, given the contagious variants that have marched through the nation over the past two years.

There may be good news in the data, some experts said. A gain in population-wide immunity may offer at least a partial bulwark against future waves. And the trend may explain why the surge that is now roaring through China and many countries in Europe has been muted in the United States.

A high percentage of previous infections may also mean that there are now fewer cases of life-threatening illness or death relative to infections. “We will see less and less severe disease, and more and more a shift toward clinically mild disease,” said Florian Krammer, an immunologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.

“It will be more and more difficult for the virus to do serious damage,” he added.

Administration officials, too, believe that the data augur a new phase of the pandemic in which infections may be common at times but cause less harm.

At a news briefing on Tuesday, Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House’s new Covid coordinator, said that stopping infections was “not even a policy goal. The goal of our policy should be: obviously, minimize infections whenever possible, but to make sure people don’t get seriously ill.”

Anecdotally, I’m not sure I personally knew anyone who had been infected six months ago and now it seems like everyone is coming down with it. As far as I know, none of my immediate family has, although only my wife and stepson have actually been tested.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    My waiter youngest and his family got it about 6 mos ago. All came thru OK. My eldest and his family are dealing with it now. I presume his wife and he only tested themselves, but both their daughters displayed symptoms. In the case of their youngest (8 mos), very minor, in the case of their eldest (2 1/2 yo), she was puking her guts out for about 18 miserable hours. Since then she has gotten better. (fingers crossed). My wife’s daughter came down with it after attending her paternal grandfather’s funeral. Managed to avoid passing it on to her immune compromised husband.

    My older brother and his nurse wife got it about 6 months into the pandemic. My eldest Sis got it about a year ago. My waiter little bro, a little bit before. And of course my long time running buddy Tim died from it a little over a year ago. I’ve had other friends who came down with it too, with varying severity but usually minor.

    My wife and I have managed to avoid it, mostly due to our natural hermit like existence. If/when I get it, I doubt it will go well for me. Too many comorbidities.

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  2. MarkedMan says:

    A couple of weeks ago I commented that we are all likely to get it, so it’s best to be vaxed and boosted and then be cautious around large indoor crowds, as there is some research that shows that severity goes up with the amount and duration of exposure. Yes, the trumpers won’t get vaxed and so will continue to die or suffer long term effects, but it is what it is.

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  3. Jen says:

    Most of my teacher friends have had it (all of them post-being vaccinated). Several neighbors have had it. I WFH and don’t really go out that much–I’ve been picking up groceries with the order-and-drive through method for over a year now–but my husband started working in a public-facing job about a month and a half ago.

    He came down with a cold, and used one of the at-home tests, which came back negative, but he only tested that one time when he first felt ill. I never got sick. One of my friends said she knew she’d been exposed so was very dubious when her at-home test came back negative. She kept testing and finally–after five days of being sick–she tested positive.

    I have no idea if my husband had a run-of-the-mill cold that I was immune to, or if he had a mild case of covid that I was able to fight off, or if I had an asymptomatic case.

    A few months ago I was talking to a nurse and she said that the variation of this virus–that some people can be completely asymptomatic while others end up dying–has been one of the hardest things to grasp about this disease.

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  4. Kathy says:

    I know a lot of vaccinated covidiots. Many of them got it during the Delta and Omicron surges.

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  5. Scott says:

    @Jen: We are all vaxxed and boosted yet my teacher wife came down with presumable Omicron Covid in January. A medium case that lasted for three days. we didn’t even try to isolate. My daughter and I (all vaxxed up) didn’t catch anything that we know of. I always wondered though and still do wonder in light of this information whether we were asymptomatically infected. Too bad there isn’t a simple antibody test. The blood bank in 2020/21 used to provide antibody test results after donation but they stopped doing that.

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  6. CSK says:

    According to Anthony Fauci, the U.S.A. is “out of the pandemic phase.”

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  7. just nutha says:

    @Jen: So far, I either haven’t gotten it, or chronic asthma, rhinitis, and COPD have made me asymptomatic (enough) that I haven’t noticed. I pretty surprised, actually. On the other hand, I wear a mask all day on the days that I teach, go shopping, go to church, and go to the doctor (still required in eeeevil, socialistic, performatively virtue-signaling Washington State). But on the test mentioned in a recent Atlantic article, I scored 98% on introversion, so it’s possible that I don’t contact enough people to get infected. (High school students seem more social distancy about their teachers than I’ve experienced in the past.)

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  8. Michael Reynolds says:

    Pretty sure I’m in the 40% but like @OzarkHillbilly: I’m basically a hermit. We are hoping (Covid and Katherine’s fucking jury duty allowing) to go on vacation starting this Sunday. Our minimal goal is to at least make it to the UK before getting Covid on the theory that it’s better to get sick during a vacation than before it. Not sure that makes sense, but we’re thinking better to lie abed sick with room service than without.

  9. just nutha says:

    @Michael Reynolds: You can get room service while sick in bed with Covid in a UK hotel? WA! I don’t think it works that way in Seoul. 🙁

    (And by the way, what does a fucking jury decide? 😉 )

  10. Mu Yixiao says:

    @just nutha:

    And by the way, what does a fucking jury decide?

    Whether or not they’re hung?

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  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Michael Reynolds: My mother broke her arm at the Louvre. The medical care was top notch and she was spoiled rotten the rest of the trip. Unfortunately, the billing when they returned was a nightmare. IDNR the details.

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  12. Franklin says:

    @just nutha:

    At least it wasn’t jury fucking duty.

  13. Michael Reynolds says:

    @just nutha:
    Well, my wife has been carefully instructed – as were all jurors – not to discuss the case with family. Being a law-abiding family we have of course complied. But if I were to speculate based on no actual data, I’d guess it was a civil action brought by one asshole against another asshole for the purpose of wasting people’s time and potentially fucking up my vacation.

    But that’s all speculation.

    We need a new category of verdict that favors neither side but allows jurors to beat the shit out of people who waste their time. Not sure how @Matt Bernius feels about that.

  14. Kathy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I caught a cold on vacation once, It ruined the last three days of it.

  15. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Kathy:
    I’m taking two nights at Sofitel LHR to deal with jet lag, then it’s off to Santorini, where a private pool overlooking the caldera awaits. All things considered I’d rather cough there. Then come Athens, Istanbul, London, Paris, Florence, Valencia and Lisbon. All lovely places in which to be sick.

    Santorini, Istanbul and Valencia will be new for me. Valencia and Lisbon we’re looking at as places to go expat if we decide to do that. Florence for old times’ sake, cuz we lived there for 6 or 7 months. London and Paris because they’re London and Paris, and Athens because flight times dictated a stop there. Maybe Athens is nicer now, but last time I was there (40+ years ago), I was not a fan.

    Then we have the option of staying on the road or coming home July 1. Or, you know, dying of Covid along the way.

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  16. Kathy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Have you ever been badly ill on vacation?

    Anyway, if you go to Istanbul make sure to check out the Theodosian Walls.

  17. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Kathy:
    Well, there was a flight home after imprudent consumption of oysters in Paris. . .

  18. Just nutha says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Oh. Your wife’s only on a regular jury? My mistake!

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