When throngs of tourists and revelers left their homes over Memorial Day weekend, public health experts braced for a surge in coronavirus infections that could force a second round of painful shutdowns.
Two weeks later, that surge has hit places like Houston, Phoenix, South Carolina and Missouri. Week-over-week case counts are on the rise in half of all states. Only 16 states and the District of Columbia have seen their total case counts decline for two consecutive weeks.
But instead of new lockdowns to stop a second spike in cases, states are moving ahead with plans to allow most businesses to reopen, lifting stay-at-home orders and returning to something that resembles normal life.
“There is no — zero — discussion of re-tightening any measures to combat this trend. Instead, states are treating this as a one-way trip. That sets us up for a very dangerous fall, but potentially even for a dangerous summer,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development who oversaw the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance during the Obama administration.
The moves suggest that many Americans — anxious to end two-plus months of lockdowns, smarting from the devastating economic toll they have already suffered and focused on the social justice protests that have roiled the nation — are ready to put the coronavirus behind them.
Even as case curves bend upward again, little action has been taken to counter the reversal.
“There are places that I suspect a lot of people are shrugging their shoulders and just rushing forward,” said David Rubin, who runs the PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “I just worry that they might lose control of their epidemic, and that’s what you have to worry about these days.”
The statistics are startling. The average number of confirmed cases over a two-week period has doubled or more in Arizona, Arkansas, Oregon and Utah. Fewer than a quarter of intensive care unit beds in Alabama, Georgia and Rhode Island are available.
In Texas, the number of people admitted to the hospital has grown 42 percent since Memorial Day. Arizona’s top health official has urged hospitals to activate their emergency plans.
North Carolina, California, Mississippi and Arkansas are all reporting record levels of hospitalizations.
Some experts worry Americans have begun to accept the drumbeat of death, numbed by the nearly 2 million cases already confirmed across the country and the 112,000 who have died.
A virus once dismissed as not a serious threat to the nation and later acknowledged as a public health emergency is now becoming just another daily worry to be absorbed.
“One fear is that the U.S. will accept tens of thousands of deaths, as from gun violence, unlike other countries,” said Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the Obama administration.
“It’s not just lives. Unless we protect lives, we won’t get livelihoods back,” said Frieden, who now runs Resolve to Save Lives, a global health nonprofit.
The race to reopen comes even as new research shows the lockdowns were working. The dramatic steps Americans took to stop the virus saved an estimated 5 million infections through April 6, according to research by the Global Policy Lab at the University of California-Berkeley.
President Trump has been perhaps the loudest proponent of reopening, at times putting pressure on states to lift coronavirus restrictions even if the data is flashing warning signs.
World Health Organization (WHO) officials have practically begged nations to be slow and considerate as they move to reopen their economies.
“We need to focus on the now. This is far from over,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on the coronavirus, told reporters at a virtual press conference Monday. “I know many of us would like this to be over and I know many situations are seeing positive signs. But it is far from over.”
On Wednesday, WHO’s director of emergency programs acknowledged the challenges of lockdown life.
“We fully understand that governments are very reticent to go back into lockdowns that can be damaging to social and economic life,” said Mike Ryan.
“There has to be a balance between lives and livelihoods and the public health control of COVID-19,” Ryan added.
There are few signs that Americans are heeding the warnings.
“We’re just at the beginning of the Memorial Day story, not at the end,” Rubin said. “We are seeing the sea levels rise.”