As of early May, COVID-19 hospitalizations and positive test rates have spiked in the US. 

Since May 6, 2023, positive COVID tests in the United States have risen from 4.9% to 14.9%, and 7,727 more people have been hospitalized. A similar trend has emerged in Wake County, where there have been 230 more hospitalizations since May 6.

While the increase in positive cases is significant, it isn’t unexpected, according to Dr. Matthew Koci, a professor at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at NC State. “Since 2021, we’ve always seen sort of a small peak around this time of the year followed by a big peak,” he said.

The Centers for Disease Control’s data sheets show this phenomenon, where in 2021, similar positive cases and hospitalization rates emerged around this time. The positive tests peaked at a 14.2% rate in July 2021

Despite the rising rates there are still ways that people can protect themselves. One option may be the COVID-19 booster shot. New shots designed to protect against the Omicron variant were approved by the Food and Drug Administration Monday, Sept. 11.

Supply of the booster is unlikely to be an issue. Dr. Julie Swann, the department head of Industrial and Systems Engineering, said, “The manufacturers of the COVID vaccines have ramped up their capacity of their production plants and their supply chain.” COVID-19 vaccines are free in North Carolina and will remain so until supplies wane.

Swann also mentioned ways to reduce transmission, such as improving indoor air quality and access to resources like vaccines and tests. Tests, in particular, may be more difficult to access due to the end of the COVID-19 national emergency on May 11. The end of the national emergency has also affected insurance coverage for COVID-19 tests. 

In addition, wearing masks still remains an option. “The decision I’m making is that I am willing to wear a mask regularly in places where either I might be at greater risk of acquiring the disease or at greater risk of transmitting it to others who might have risk factors that I don’t know,” said Swann. 

Swann emphasized that safe practices are not incompatible with interacting with others. “COVID is serious. However, you know, I want to make clear I still see friends socially and my family,” she said. “I’m going about my work in ways that I am regularly in interaction with large numbers of people. So it is not stopping me from doing those things at this point.”

It appears unlikely that NC State will change any current regulations in light of this increase in positive cases. “If we start to see more students get severely ill, I would expect the university leadership will recognize that the threat is elevated, and they will respond in time,” Koci said. “But right now, the cases on campus are akin to what they were on campus in March. So, we’re doing about the same thing now that we did last March in terms of mitigation stuff, so we’re probably in the right spot.” 

Swann echoed these sentiments, saying “I’m not sure that we’re going to have widespread acceptance on particular policies or strategies unless we see mutations that behave very differently than what we’re seeing now.”

Koci recommends that students go to the Student Health Center as soon as they feel symptoms. Students who delay treatment may have to wait longer for a physician to see them, especially when cases increase. “Whether it’s COVID testing or otherwise, if people are, if cases are up and you start to feel bad. The sooner you can see the health center, the sooner you might be able to get medicine to prevent you from getting worse faster.” 

Students should be especially conscious now, as case numbers are expected to rise in the upcoming weeks. “I do believe that we’re on an upper trend. You can see that from wastewater data as well as from hospitalizations.” Swann said. 

NC State University has relaxed its COVID-19 guidelines in recent years, though it still recommends students get vaccinated. The Campus Health Pharmacy also offers at-home test kits.