We May Be in for a Repeat of Last Winter
It may feel like eons ago, but try to recall summer 2020: While there were coronavirus surges in some parts of the country, national case rates were low. In some areas, the virus almost faded away entirely. But of course, the respite didn’t last. Cases began rising again in the fall of 2020, peaking at an average of more than 250,000 per day in January 2021.
The U.S. may be in for something even worse this year, my colleague Chris Wilson warns.
After a heartbreakingly bad summer, the virus’ spread appears to be ebbing, Chris writes. As of today, the U.S. is reporting about 145,000 diagnoses per day—too high for comfort, but at least a modest downward trend from over 160,000 daily cases at the end of August. In many hotspot states, diagnoses are significantly lower than they were a month or two ago.
But kids are now returning to school, cooler weather will force social gatherings indoors and holiday travel season will soon be upon us. With the highly contagious Delta variant now the dominant strain and millions of Americans still unvaccinated, we may be heading for a repeat of last year.
Of course, the situation isn’t exactly the same. More than half the population (and counting) is fully vaccinated, and many other people have at least some level of natural immunity after surviving an infection. That will certainly help keep cases down, but it may not be enough. As Chris points out, seven U.S. states set new daily case records this summer, even with vaccines widely available. As long as there are millions of unvaccinated people in the U.S., the virus will find a way to spread—particularly when it’s as contagious as the Delta variant.
So what can you do? At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the advice is the same as ever: get vaccinated if you haven’t, get your kids vaccinated if they’re old enough, wear masks if you gather with people indoors and stay home if you feel unwell.
President Joe Biden’s announcement Thursday that broadly expanded mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations or at least compulsory weekly testing is a sign, possibly, that the administration sees the writing on the wall. Even with tentative but promising signs that the fourth wave of surging cases in COVID-19 in the United States, dating back to the first days of summer, was waning, without drastic measures, the fifth will be catastrophically worse.
The new requirements are estimated to affect about 100 million people, including most federal workers and a substantial number of private sector employees—many of whom are already vaccinated. This would largely affect working-age residents (age 18-64), who currently number above 200 million, of whom 59.8% are vaccinated, according to TIME’s analysis of daily figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That leaves more than 80 million who remain unvaccinated, though the White House orders will only cover a fraction of them.
The question is now: What happens this fall and winter, when children are at school and Americans once again travel for the holidays? In spite of desperate warnings from the CDC that people stay home for last year’s holiday, they largely did not, which led to the third spike in cases, which reached heights that dwarfed the first two. That doesn’t bode well for Christmas 2021, especially given that, in this current, fourth wave, seven states have already surpassed their previous peaks in cases (with another four doing nearly as poorly):
Within the next several days, we may see a modest surge from travel over the Labor Day weekend, but the real test will come in about two months—still all too soon. The holidays always sneak up on us. Under one possibility, many millions of Americans may be bolstered by a booster shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, though this will be scant protection for those who have yet to receive a first.
Evidence that surging cases could inspire more unvaccinated Americans to change their mind was initially encouraging, but did not extend indefinitely. Should the fourth wave recede considerably, it may take a fifth to convince a significantly greater number.