- Experts say the most recent surge in COVID-19 cases is likely to get worse as fall and winter weather sets in.
- A new estimate predicts that an additional 150,000 people could die from COVID-19 between now and February.
- Experts say it’s vital that people continue to wear masks and keep physical distancing during the next few months.
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This headline from Tuesday’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch may best sum up where we are in the COVID-19 pandemic: “There’s No Safe Place.”
The news from around the country isn’t encouraging.
El Paso County in Texas has seen a 160 percent increase in its COVID-19 positivity rate and a 300 percent spike in hospitalizations since the first of the month.
Beds in the county’s intensive care units (ICU) reached capacity over the weekend. Overflow ICU patients are being airlifted to other cities.
There’s a curfew in place for the next 2 weeks from 10 p.m. until 5 a.m. Residents are required to stay home unless they’re traveling to or from work or need to use essential services.
In Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers is urging residents to “stay home.”
“If that’s considered a self-imposed lockdown, whatever it is, it’s important,” Evers said at a news conference Tuesday. “There is no way to sugarcoat it. We are facing an urgent crisis.”
That warning comes as the state shattered single-day records of new COVID-19 cases, deaths, and hospitalizations. Hospital beds are at 84 percent capacity.
Utah hospital officials have presented that state’s governor, Gary Herbert, with a proposal if hospitals face having to ration care in the next week or two.
Already this month, two Utah hospitals have had to open overflow ICUs.
The plan would move people who are getting worse out of the ICU despite receiving critical care. And if two patients had equal conditions, the younger patient would get treatment priority over the older one.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon and chief medical correspondent for CNN, said he is concerned that the United States if facing “exponential growth” of COVID-19 cases.
Other experts agree.
“The virus is really running unchecked,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Tennessee. “There is a surge, not only are cases going up, so are hospitalizations over a broad sweep of the country.”
“We all anticipate this is going to get worse because we will spend more time indoors, close to each other for prolonged periods of time. That’s what the virus loves,” Schaffner told Healthline.
And he says the crowds, indoors or out, are potential opportunities to spread the virus on a large scale.
As an example, he points to the motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, in August, an event he called a “well-documented accelerator outbreak.”
Nearly half a million bikers gathered for 10 days. Few wore masks. More than 330 coronavirus cases and one death were connected to the rally directly.
That’s what we know from the survey of 23 state health departments by The Washington Post, but there was little contact tracing. Many experts believe that event may be linked to the spread of the virus across the upper Midwest.
Some of those states are now leading the country in new COVID-19 cases when you measure in terms of per capita.
“At the family level, it’s the funerals and weddings. Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Christmas are all coming up,” Schaffner noted.
He explains the “twindemic” of influenza season and COVID-19 will likely put further strain on our healthcare system.
That could result in overworked doctors and nurses, an acute shortage of critical care beds, and scarce personal protective equipment (PPE) all over again.
Experts say there’s a lag time between the spike in hospitalizations and the rise in the death rate.
How much worse can it get?
The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington has a new prediction out, and the news is grim.
The institute estimates the number of people in the United States to die from COVID-19 could top 385,000 by the first of February. That’s an additional 150,000 deaths over the next 3 months.
“Honestly, every time we do a projection, I wish and I pray that we are wrong, and whoever is predicting the smaller number is correct,” said Ali Mokdad, PhD, BS, a professor of global health at the University of Washington.
What’s driving the projections? He says in part it’s personal behaviors.
“Some people in their fatigue from the lockdown are letting down their guard, unfortunately,” Mokdad told Healthline.
The IHME team
“Mask wearing is very important,” Mokdad said. “Countries that have done it have controlled the pandemic and opened their businesses. They haven’t had to do shutdowns again.”
“But in this country, we’re still debating. There is a middle ground here. We could keep our economy running if we do the right public health measures,” he said. “We have to sacrifice and change some of our ways of life until we have a vaccine.”
Experts say a vaccine may take longer than anticipated, at best early 2021.
Even when it does become available, Schaffner says it will take time to vaccinate 330 million people.
The vaccine may not be effective for everyone, which means we’d still need to mask up.
“It’s going to take national discipline, a structured plan, and sustained commitment,” Schaffner explained. “There is no quick fix.”
“People are looking for some sort of liberation, ‘get out of jail free card,’ so they can all go back to the old normal,” he said. “I think a year from now we’ll still be wearing masks, and that’s epidemic unhappiness but very realistic.”