This past week has seen a further continuation of the trend towards modestly rising levels of new but relatively mild COVID infections. Viral counts again rose in municipal wastewater but hospitalizations have remained stable. We’ll have to wait until next week for Ontario’s biweekly report on PCR test positivity rates. 

André Picard, the Globe and Mail’s primary COVID commentator, pointed to an estimate that one in 46 Canadians currently have COVID infections, which suggests more caution in choosing to be maskless in crowded situations, especially those who haven’t bothered getting their booster shots in the past six months. 

Another report casts doubt on the good-news story of the dramatic decline in COVID deaths. But limited testing, significant delays in reporting and differing provincial interpretations of what constitutes a COVID-related death render those numbers questionable. “Excess mortality”, the number of explained deaths above what would be statistically expected, has soared in Canada since the onset of the pandemic, especially compared to countries like Britain and France, which have timely, more uniform death-reporting systems. In those countries, almost all excess mortality can be explained by COVID-19 deaths. 

The most interesting COVID-related news is the accelerating speed at which the virus is spawning new variants. Looking at the latest US CDC report displayed in this week’s composite chart, XBB strains now account for essential all new infections. Within that family, EG.5 (an XBB.1.9.1 derivative) currently enjoys the largest “market share” at 21%. Its rate of growth (nearly tripling over the past six weeks) has slowed, whereas the number-two strain at 13% (FL.1.5.1, an XBB1.9.1 derivative) has soared more than 10-fold over that same period. Given that all XBB variants have some ability to evade human hybrid immunity acquired from both vaccination and prior infection, the sheer number of new strains which spread by outcompeting their brethren in transmissibility must sooner or later result in a spike in new infections. The coming fall season in which people spend more time indoors and children return to school could well provide the virus with that opportunity.