With the third year of the pandemic coming to a close, the current phase of the coronavirus crisis isn’t nearly as frightening as the previous phases from 2020 and 2021. In fact, increasing immunity — bolstered by infections and vaccines — is seeming to transform the coronavirus into a slightly milder threat, similar to the common cold and the flu.
In many regards, this taming of this virus has allowed individuals in the U.S. to return to their normal routines, but that doesn’t mean that the coronavirus isn't a continuing concern.
Still capable of causing over 46 million infections in a single year in the U.S. alone, COVID-19 has also branched off into an assortment of antibody-avoiding variants and has surged alongside several of the mild sicknesses that it is slowly starting to mimic.
So, here’s a brief look at the biggest developments of COVID-19 in 2022.
COVID-19 Immunity Increase
Throughout the course of the year, a combination of infections and vaccinations has granted immunity to a far greater portion of the population in the U.S. According to the COVID States Project, the population of adults with antibodies against the virus surpassed 80 percent in 2022. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) corroborates that claim, too, asserting that almost 95 percent of adults possess some sort of immunity.
In fact, infections seemed somewhat milder in 2022 than they were in 2020 and 2021. While serious disease and death were still well within the realm of possibility — with over 261,000 individuals dying of the disease in 2022 — several studies suggest that cases of COVID-19 tended to become shorter and sweeter on average. The top symptoms were a sore, scratchy throat and a smattering of sniffles.
This transformation of the coronavirus made it possible to resume many pre-pandemic activities inside and in person, without worrying too much about distance and mask mandates.
Already in February, the CDC announced that the majority of people could spend their time in indoor spaces, and attend work and school without wearing a mask. Since then, the agency recommended the coverings sporadically, in certain communities and certain circumstances, when the risk of contracting the virus called for an additional layer of protection.
A Variety of COVID-19 Variants
All that said, coronavirus conditions aren't only improving. Just before the start of 2022, Omicron appeared for the first time. Soon, this antibody-avoiding variant of the virus had been detected all around the world and had become dominant in the U.S., accounting for the vast majority of developing coronavirus cases.
In fact, in the immediate aftermath of its appearance, the portion of individuals in the U.S. that caught the virus at some point since the start of the pandemic suddenly spiked, increasing from 35 to 60 percent.
The initial swell in Omicron cases continued for weeks and weeks, and, at its climax, produced the tallest peak in infections in the pandemic thus far. The reason why was that the variant infected all sorts of individuals — young and old, vaccinated and unvaccinated — whether they’d already contracted another version of the virus or not.
In spite of all that, though, the infections seemed to involve a milder version of COVID-19, as the victims of the variant tended to bounce back from illness quickly, with a boosted immunity to boot.
This, of course, was one of the biggest factors contributing to our increased immunoprotection this year, in combination with an updated version of the vaccine that targets Omicron specifically. In turn, we’ve been better prepared for the variety of new variants in the Omicron family that have popped up throughout the year.
In fact, since its initial surge, Omicron has split off into several subvariants, including BA.4 and BA.5 and BQ.1 and BQ.1.1, many of which have caused their own increases in cases, though they remained relatively mild most of the time.
Trouble in Threes
Experts describe some of these Omicron subvariants, particularly BQ.1 and BQ.1.1, as tremendously transmissible and better at avoiding antibodies than any other strain of the virus, demonstrating a "significant growth advantage," as a result.
As such, these two subvariants are continuing to account for almost 70 percent of all coronavirus infections in the U.S. But, making matters worse is the fact that these subvariants aren’t traveling through the population alone.
Read more: Why Are Viruses More Active in the Winter?
Without many of the past precautions in play in the U.S. this year, the start of the winter season prompted an increase of around 50 percent in the number of new coronavirus cases through the transition from Nov. 22 to Dec. 12.
At the same time, the onset of the winter season also inspired infections from several other respiratory illnesses, including influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, to climb. The overlap of these three illnesses, which some specialists have termed a “tripledemic,” has already strained the medical system and made for one of the worst seasons of respiratory hospitalizations on record.
Of these three infections, scientists suspect that the rise in coronavirus cases is most at risk of continuing through to the new year (though the rate of infections has remained relatively flat throughout the past week or so).
While the consequences of such a continuation remain in the air, it is thought that the accumulation of antibodies in the population after this year could curb the overall toll. That said, the CDC is still recommending a brief return to the most basic precautions, such as wearing masks in indoor spaces.