In Thursday’s second and final Presidential debate, former Vice President Joe Biden warned that a “dark winter” lies ahead in the coronavirus pandemic, and with cases, hospitalizations, and deaths on the rise across the country, it now appears that we are headed into a “third wave” of infections that may prove worse than both the initial onset of COVID on the coasts and the summertime spike in the Sun Belt.
Yesterday more than 71,600 new cases were reported nationwide, nearing a late-July record. Thirteen states hit record-high hospitalizations this week, measured by weekly averages, most in the Midwest and Mountain West. Several Northeastern states, which had previously brought the spread of the virus under control, also experienced substantial increases in infections, leading schools in Boston to suspend all in-person instruction. Of particular concern is hospital capacity, which is already being strained in the more rural areas now being hit by COVID cases. With infection spikes more geographically widespread than in earlier waves, fewer medical workers are available to lend support to hospitals in other states, leading to concerns about hospital staffing as admissions rise.
As hospitalizations increase, so too will demand for therapeutics to help shorten the course and moderate the impact of COVID. This week, Gilead Sciences’ antiviral drug remdesivir, previously available under an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the federal government, became the first drug to win full approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat patients hospitalized with COVID-19. The approval was based on clinical studies that showed that remdesivir can reduce recovery time, and also includes use for pediatric COVID patients under the age of 11.
Meanwhile, the FDA cleared AstraZeneca to resume US clinical trials of its coronavirus vaccine, which had been suspended for a month following an adverse patient event. It’s widely expected that one or more drug companies will submit their vaccine candidates for EUA sometime next month, although new polling data released this week indicates that the American public is growing more skeptical in their willingness to take an early vaccine against the virus, with only 58 percent of respondents saying they would get the shot when it first becomes available, down from 69 percent in August. (Only 43 percent of Black respondents say they would get the vaccine, compared to 59 percent of Whites—a racial divide that reveals deep distrust based on the history of inequities in the US healthcare system.)
In many respects, the coming month will surely prove to be a pandemic turning point, revealing the magnitude of the next wave of COVID, the direction of US public health policy, the prospects for reliable therapeutics, and the timing of a safe and effective vaccine. We’ll soon know whether we are, indeed, headed for a winter of darkness.