COVID summer guide: How to navigate symptoms, variants and vaccines this season amid rising cases

A woman wearing a face mask and lying on the grass.
Experts are beginning to see signs of the usual summer COVID surge. They have tips on what you need to know this season. (Getty Images) (Vera Vita via Getty Images)

It’s summer 2024, but the COVID-19 pandemic is still hanging around. And while the virus continues to evolve, it’s doing so in more predictable ways. Specifically, the expected summer uptick in infections has arrived: The number of COVID cases is "likely" on the rise in at least 39 states and isn't dropping anywhere in the United States, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There are new variants in town, a reformulated vaccine on the horizon and fresh preventive treatments to help protect the most vulnerable people from getting severely ill from COVID. At-risk groups are now the main focus of the U.S. strategy against COVID — instead of the sweeping, one-size-fits-all approach taken in the early days of the pandemic — which means there may be less for an average, healthy person to do. But awareness is the key to staying healthy, experts say, so it’s more important than ever to know just how at-risk you are.

Here’s what to know about COVID this summer.

A variant of the COVID virus known as KP.3 is now responsible for about a third of the cases in the U.S., which is more than any other form, according to the latest data from the CDC. KP.3 recently overtook its close relative KP.2, but both belong to a group known as the FLiRT variants. Yet another emerging variant — known as LB.1 — now accounts for nearly 18% of COVID cases in the U.S., and given its rapid growth, experts suspect it could soon become dominant. A preprint paper even found signals that LB.1 is more infectious than the KP variants. All these cousins are descendants of omicron, the more easily spread variant of the disease that swept the globe beginning in late 2021.

However, the FLiRT variants are “different enough from the last omicron variant that protection is not going to be very durable either from the current vaccine,” which was based on that variant, XBB.1.5, Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. “This is the new normal. New variants will continually appear and have the ability to infect a population that has a lot of prior immunity; that’s what we should expect now and forever.”

But the good news is that the newly dominant FLiRT variants don’t appear more likely to cause severe illness, hospitalization or death, says Adalja. While LB.1 may well be more infectious than both KP.3 and earlier variants, it is too soon to say whether it makes people any sicker, the preprint notes.

The symptoms are all essentially the same no matter what variant you get, Adalja says. “Everybody talks about these changing symptoms,” says Dr. David Smith, head of the University of California at San Diego’s division of infectious diseases. “But in reality, it's the good old cough, fever, sore throat, feeling bad or malaise … the same old things from the very beginning of the pandemic.” The New York Times also reports patients feeling generally “blah.” According to the CDC, common symptoms include:

  • Fever or chills

  • Cough

  • Shortness of breath

  • Fatigue

  • Muscle or body aches

  • Headache

  • New loss of taste or smell

  • Sore throat

  • Congestion or runny nose

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Diarrhea

The CDC advises that everyone age 5 and older should get one dose of one of the current COVID vaccines made by either Pfizer, Moderna or Novavax. Younger children, adults 65 and older and immunocompromised people may need multiple doses, the agency says.

However, with a new round of vaccines expected to be available this fall, experts’ advice is a little more complicated. If they haven’t gotten a dose of the current vaccine, “most people can probably hold off,” says Adalja. “If you get it now, it may blunt the effect of the new vaccine in the fall.” The FDA has requested that vaccine makers update their shots for the fall to be effective against the JN.1 lineage, of which the FLiRT variants are descendants.

For most people, Adalja says whether to get a shot this summer varies “case by case,” and he advises considering:

  • How long it’s been since your last vaccination

  • How high your risks of severe COVID are

  • What category of risk you belong to (e.g., older people, people with excess weight, people with chronic health conditions, immunosuppressed people)

  • How long it’s been since your last COVID infection

  • Whether you are pregnant

Smith says that anyone 65 and older should get a dose of the current shot if they haven’t already. “The summer wave is coming, and the vaccine does offer quite a bit of protection against the [FliRT] variants,” he tells Yahoo Life. “People who are otherwise relatively healthy and not older can decide for themselves. But if you don’t, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll get infected in the summer wave.”

It looks that way, as cases have begun to tick upward. The rate of positive COVID tests rose to 6.6% during the week ending June 15, up by 1.2% from the prior week, according to CDC data. And emergency room visits for COVID rose by 14.7% that week over the one prior. Both hospitalization and death rates are up too, rising 25% and 16.7%, respectively, during the week ending in June 15.

“The wave is starting … but who knows if we’re going to have the big summer waves like we’ve had every summer since [the COVID pandemic] started,” Smith says. Adalja says that with the arrival of a new variant, the uptick in COVID cases is expected. “It’s nothing unmanageable in the health care system, but it’s an increase,” he says.

Both experts caution that any time you’re spending time in crowded places, there’s still some risk of contracting COVID, especially amid the FLiRT-fueled summer increase. That doesn’t mean everyone has to stay home, simply that you should know your risks and do what you can to mitigate them.

“The main behavior we should ingrain in our culture is, if you’re sick, stay home,” says Smith. “The flip side is also true: We have to be more forgiving when someone says I don’t feel well and I don’t think I should come in [to work] or go to that event. We need to be grateful to that person for taking care of us by not exposing us to COVID or anything else that they might have.”

Yes. The CDC still recommends testing if you have symptoms of COVID or know you’ve been exposed to someone with the virus. “If you don’t feel right, you need to get a test,” says Smith. If your initial home test is negative, the CDC says the best way to be sure you are COVID-free is to take a second test within 48 hours if you have symptoms, and three home tests if you have no symptoms.

However, you'll no longer be able to order free tests from the U.S. government. The program was discontinued as of March 2024. Private insurers are also no longer required to pay for the tests. But some insurers still cover the tests, as do Medicaid and Medicare.

The CDC relaxed its recommendations for quarantining after a positive test in March, and now only suggests that people stay home and away from other people if they have symptoms. If you have been fever-free and without symptoms for at least 24 hours, you don’t need to stay home.

Smith recommends that “if you do test positive, then you need to talk to a doctor about whether or not you need a treatment.” However, he adds that we still don’t have great treatments for COVID, with Paxlovid being the only approved medication for COVID. “It’s not like Tamiflu, where you get better faster, but it’s really about the prevention of severe disease,” says Adalja. The CDC advises that Paxlovid — which requires a prescription — should be given to people who are at high risk of getting severely ill. Paxlovid needs to be taken within five to seven days of developing symptoms.

But for most people, the agency says you can recover at home and use over-the-counter medications including acetaminophen or ibuprofen to help manage your symptoms.