COVID-19 cases are rising in many states. What experts say makes this summer different.

Shortly before the start of the third summer of the pandemic, the USA is undergoing a sixth wave of COVID-19 cases.

Compared with previous surges, this one looks more like a swell, health experts said.

The rise in cases reported in the Northeast in recent weeks appears to have peaked, but upward trends continue in at least 21 states, according to a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins University data. Health experts said cases are likely higher because of underreported home tests.

Although cases are rising, health experts said hospitalizations remain in check. There are about 350 deaths reported per day based on a seven-day average, which is more than a hundred deaths less than this time last year, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

“We’re only about 10 to 15 cases higher than what we were a year ago as far as hospitalizations, and there are fewer patients requiring ICU care, which is encouraging,” said Dr. Adia Ross, chief medical officer of Duke Regional Hospital. “Even though cases are up, the hospitalizations are not as high as they have been.”

Here’s what else is different going into the third pandemic summer:

Those who avoided COVID-19 are getting it for the first time
If it feels like everyone in your circle is getting sick, you’re not wrong.

COVID-19 is everywhere, and many who avoided the virus are getting it for the first time, said Dr. Stuart Ray, professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University.

After more than two years of preventive measures, pandemic fatigue has set in, health experts said, and more people attend social gatherings and travel without wearing a mask.

“When you lower your guard at a time when the rates are high, you’re pretty likely to encounter someone who is positive,” Ray said.

Public health officials have warned of high case rates for months, but experts said people’s behavior is partly responsible for driving cases higher.

“The reason why it doesn’t feel as urgent to people is because everyone knows someone who has had COVID or has had it themselves. And in people who are immunized, most cases are relatively mild,” said Dr. Paul Sax, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and clinical director of the division of infectious diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

For every person who has a mild case of COVID-19, somewhere in the chain of transmission is someone who may have developed severe disease.

“The problem is that there’s so much COVID out there that the people who are most vulnerable are still getting quite sick,” Sax said.

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