News·5 min read

COVID-19 Winter Surge: What You Should Know

A woman gets her coronavirus test ahead of Thanksgiving in New York City.
December 8, 2021

A new spike in COVID-19 cases is expected to hit the US throughout the holiday season. Right as the eggnog is flowing. And data shows that cases are already increasing in at least half of US states. Enter: The (likely) winter surge. Aka a fifth COVID-19 wave. Yep, you read that right. 

How A COVID-19 Surge in Europe Can Impact The US

Europe is — yet again — the epicenter of COVID-19. In November, the continent recorded the highest number of cases since the beginning of the pandemic, according to WHO data. Virus-related deaths also went up. And many are pointing the finger at unvaxxed Europeans for the rise in cases. 

Some European countries (like Germany and the Netherlands) have implemented new restrictions and tightened their lockdown measures. Including Austria, which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in western Europe (65%). In mid-November, its gov began enforcing a 10-day lockdown for millions of unvaccinated Austrians ages 12 and up. And later extended it to 20 days.

  • The details: Those who are unvaxxed have been restricted from leaving their homes (except for grocery store and doctor's visits). And those who don’t follow the rules could be fined hundreds of dollars. It’s believed to be the first time ever that a country has targeted a specific group of people based on their vaccine status.

It’s unclear if other countries will do the same — and vaccine hesitancy isn’t helping. Health experts say that the rise in cases in Europe could be a warning sign for the US. Remember: The US’s vax rate is lower than many European countries’ vax rates. And COVID-19 trends in the US have followed those in Europe. (See: the start of the outbreak, the alpha variant.)

What’s Causing The (Likely) US COVID-19 Winter Surge

Less than one-third of the US population is unvaxxed (think: more than 130 million people). And the country is still reeling from the effects of the Delta wave — which is still causing cases to go up in some states. Including in states with higher vaccination rates, like Vermont.

There are a few reasons for the potential surge, including… 

  • Omicron. While we wait for the data to tell us more about this variant (like how it’ll affect vaccine efficacy), there are a few things we do know: It has 50 mutations to its spike protein (aka the way it enters the body’s cells). It was first flagged in South Africa. But was likely spreading in Western Europe before it made its way to the African country. It’s been found in a number of US states. And it’s already caused some changes to international travel. Including travel restrictions to African countries by the US and several other countries. And updated COVID-19 testing guidelines for travelers coming to the US.

  • Waning vaccine immunity. It’s been about a year since Americans started getting vaccinated. And research shows that while they still protect against serious illness and hospitalization, their ability to prevent infection drops months after getting one. 

    • Important note: Vaccines are still the best way to protect yourself from the virus — even if their efficacy decreases in time. Health officials are encouraging more people to get their booster shots ahead of the holidays.

  • The Delta variant. Yup, as we said above – it’s not over. Even with Omicron in the picture. The variant accounts for about 99% of all COVID-19 cases in the US. And it’s highly contagious (think: up to 2x more contagious than other variants). The chances of it spreading can increase when people are indoors. Which happens more often in colder weather. Especially when it comes to…

  • The holidays. Even though COVID-19 cases are on the rise around the US, many people still plan to get together with family and friends And AAA predicts that holiday travel will rebound to pre-pandemic levels – with around 53 million Americans planning to get away. That’s a 13% uptick from last year. All of which can increase the spread of the virus. And we saw that happen earlier this year, post-2020 holidays. Whether you’re planning to spend the holidays at home with family or travel out of the country, we’ve got tips on how to stay safe here.

Another problem with an upcoming surge is issues at hospitals around the country. Like many industries, health care is dealing with staffing shortages – mainly because many workers have quit due to burnout from the job. And the majority of people who wind up in hospitals with COVID-related issues are unvaccinated. 

The good news is this holiday surge may not do as much damage as it did this past holiday season. The main reason: The country has a new level of protection with widespread vaccines. At this point last year, few Americans were eligible for a shot. Now, anyone five years and older can get one. Experts believe that states with lower vaccination rates (like Utah and Wyoming) are more likely to feel the brunt of a surge than states with higher vaccination rates (like Massachusetts and Vermont).

Psst...If you have unvaxxed kids in your family, here are some guidelines to keep them safe. 

To nip this issue in the Christmas tree bud, health officials are urging those who are unvaxxed to get a shot — and those who are fully vaxxed to get a booster (if they can). People may also want to consider getting a flu shot to help lessen the burden on health care facilities. 

Plus, some lawmakers are urging President Biden to require people flying within the US to have a negative COVID-19 test result or show proof of vaccination. They say this would “​​ensure Americans can travel safely to see their loved ones during the holidays” while limiting the spread of COVID-19. And while Dr. Anthony Fauci previously told theSkimm he’d support a vaccine mandate for airline travel, it’s unclear if the White House would follow lawmakers’ suggestion.


We’re approaching another winter with COVID-19. What’s different this time: We have widespread access to vaccines to help protect people against the virus. But with more than one-third of the US population unvaxxed, we could be looking at yet another potentially deadly winter surge.

Updated on Dec. 8 to include the CDC testing requirements for inbound international travel.

Updated on Dec. 3 to include details about the Omicron variant.

Live Smarter

Sign up for the Daily Skimm email newsletter. Delivered to your inbox every morning and prepares you for your day in minutes.