Just a month ago, even as signs of a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections in the U.S. were blossoming in the lower Midwest, the memory of a long, miserable winter kept us warm. Even places with burgeoning case rates were far below their catastrophic peaks over the holidays, when a combination of cold weather and defiant travelers contributed to a third wave in infections and deaths that drowned out the previous two spikes in April and July of 2020.
This is regrettably no longer the case. In four states—Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida—the current number of daily new COVID-19 infections, averaged across seven days, has surpassed that winter peak, even with a substantial percentage of the population having received a complete dosage of the COVID-19 vaccine (though not nearly as many as public officials would prefer).
Hawaii is something of an anomaly, as its winter peak was not nearly as high as in colder, more accessible regions. But several other states threaten to join this quartet in the near future. Oregon’s daily rate of new infections is at 36.5 per 100,000 residents, or 99% of the peak value on Dec. 3, 2020. Nationwide, the rate is 37.7, just under 50% of the winter peak of 76.5.
What is perhaps most sobering about this surge is that COVID-19-related deaths, which typically lag behind case surges by about two weeks, are starting to rise again. No state has yet surpassed the winter peak in deaths, but at 65%, Louisiana very well may. That figure is still 15% nationwide, well below the Jan. 13, 2021 peak of 1.04 fatalities per 100,000 people. It is currently at 0.16.
When it comes to the pandemic, no one wants to sound like Chicken Little. The sky might not be falling. But neither is the national case rate, or the number of people dying.
With August just around the corner, COVID-19 cases surging and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) again recommending indoor masking for many vaccinated people, parents and health officials are gearing up for tough choices around school reopening.
My colleague Tara Law has a new story on an issue that may foreshadow what’s to come for schools: COVID-19 outbreaks at summer camps.
Tara focused on a camp in Galveston County, Texas, which has been linked to 157 COVID-19 cases. The camp, which was for kids in grades six through 12, reportedly did little to enforce social distancing and few campers wore masks—even though pediatric vaccination rates in the area are low. The outbreak was likely the result of “a partially vaccinated group of people all getting together and everyone acting…like they were all vaccinated,” one expert told Tara.
That statement has big implications for schools trying to reopen this coming fall. With vaccines still not authorized for children younger than 12, and less than half of 12- to 17-year-olds nationwide fully vaccinated, there will be millions of unprotected children returning to school soon.
With the Delta variant spreading, the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics say all students and staff should wear masks in school. (The CDC initially said in guidance published July 9 that vaccinated people could go without masks, but the agency reversed that decision yesterday.) But, as camp outbreaks show, it can be difficult to enforce those policies to the letter, particularly in states—like Texas—where elected officials have barred public schools from requiring any students to wear masks.
“Because actually following rules is an important piece of prevention, schools have the advantage of being more controlled environments than camps,” Tara says. We’ll see this fall how well they do.
Here’s our personal bellwether for how the Delta variant is impacting health systems:we’ve had three different, in-person leadership retreats cancel across the course of the past week, due to COVID concerns. Three very different parts of the country, on both coasts and in the heartland.
Case counts are up, hospitalizations are up, and clinical leaders are (rightly) becoming more skittish about large, in-person meetings. As many have noted, this latest wave of infections is unevenly distributed across the country, primarily affecting the unvaccinated but also putting vaccinated people at risk of transmitting the virus or becoming ill.
As frequent business travelers who thrive on meeting face-to-face with our members, we had just begun to get comfortable being back out “on the road”—but now that’s changing, too. The recent cancellations are a good reminder that we’re still in a fluid situation in this pandemic, and that being flexible and adaptable will continue to be critical for the foreseeable future. (Thank goodness we’re not in the conference business—that’s got to be a nightmare right now.)
Just as we always check the weather forecast for places we’re traveling to, we’ve started checking the number of cases per 100,000 and the test positivity rate as well—over 10 per 100,000, or over 5 percent, and we’ll think twice about visiting.
And our masks have gone back on. We’ll hope to see you out there soon, but in the meantime—stay safe and get vaccinated!
Unemployment claims jumped last week, as the delta variant of the coronavirus sparked rising caseloads around the country and renewed fears about the potential for more restrictions and business closures.
The number of new claims grew to 419,000 from 368,000, the third time in six weeks that they had ticked up, according to data from the Department of Labor.
Economists said the uptick was concerning but cautioned that it was too early to tell whether it was a one week aberration or telegraphed a more concerning turn for the labor market.
“The unexpected bump in claims could be noise in the system, but it’s also not hard to see how the rise of the covid-19 delta variant could add thousands of layoffs to numbers that already are double what they were pre-Covid,” said Robert Frick, corporate economist at Navy Federal Credit Union.
Overall, unemployment numbers have been falling gradually from the peaks at other stages of the pandemic, but they are still well above pre-pandemic averages.
The jobless numbers have provided a jarring catalogue about the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic — spiking to records as the pandemic unfolded in March 2020, and remaining at historic high levels throughout most of 2020.
The coronavirus surge last fall helped precipitate a rise in claims that saw the labor market, as seen in the monthly jobs report, slide backward too.
But until recently, the last few months been marked by strong jobs growth and a sense of optimism as vaccinations picked up, giving economists hope that the country was back on track to recovering the nearly 7 million jobs it is still down from before the pandemic.
Now, the delta variant is driving an alarming increase in covid-19 cases around the country, according to public health officials: the number of new cases increased more than 40 percent in the last week, sending jitters through the stock market, and is raising questions about whether state and local health authorities will reinstitute restrictions to slow the virus’ spread.
Frick said that the report showed the potential for unemployment claims to start trending upward after months of steady declines.
“There’s definitely a correlation, however loose, that the rise in covid does cause a rise in claims,” he said. “My fear is that the rise in the delta variant could cause claims to go back up…Certainly one week doesn’t show that. But I wouldn’t be surprised if we start to see claims rise.”
However, there are also lots of signs that the economy continues to rebound despite rising caseloads.
The more than 2.2 million people that the Transportation Security Administration said it screened at airports on Sunday was the most since late February 2020 — and nearly three times the amount it was on the same day last year.
Restaurant dining has largely rebounded in recent months, at times surpassing the levels from before the pandemic — on Saturday the number of diners was 1 percent higher than the same day in 2019, according to data from Open Table.
Last week, some 12.5 million claims were filed for unemployment insurance overall, according to the most recent numbers — down from 32.9 million filed at the same point last year.
Nevada, Rhode Island and California topped the list of states with the highest number of people on unemployment, the Labor Department said.
Economic concerns in recent months have been more focused on the ways that workers are still held back from filling some of the more than 9 million job openings in the country, than unemployment, with high hopes that school re-openings in the fall will help many parents get back into the labor force.
With every passing day, the United States appears more likely to be on the cusp of a dreaded fourth wave of COVID-19 infections, even as the percentage of fully vaccinated Americans inches toward 50%. In the past two weeks, the number of average new daily cases has more than doubled, from 13,200 on July 4 to more than 32,300 on July 18, a surge that harbors grim reminders of the fronts of the second and third waves in the summer and fall of 2020.
But on closer inspection, this surge looks significantly different than those we have seen in the past—and may very well be worse than it looks on the page.
The coronavirus pandemic has never, even in its worst heights last winter, struck the U.S. uniformly. Instead, it has wandered from eruptions in specific urban areas to suburban and rural counties and then back again, like a persistent hurricane. Now, as the gap between states’ completed vaccination rates widens—Alabama has vaccinated just 33.7% of residents, compared to nearly 70% in Vermont—the per capita rate of new cases has clustered in a handful of regions where a majority of adults remain unvaccinated even as reopening continues apace.
To draw on my amateur oceanography, the current crest resembles less a wave than a rip tide, with surges of current inundating several hotspots while the remainder of the country remains blissfully unaware (or unwilling to admit) that the pandemic is not remotely over. The upshot is that local data, rather than state- or nationwide-level figures, now paint the most accurate picture of the current state of the outbreak.
“State-wide cases don’t tell the entire story. We need a finer-toothed comb,” says Jennifer Nuzzo, the lead epidemiologist for the Johns Hopkins University Testing Insights Initiative.
As Nuzzo notes, the most recent documented outbreaks are more concentrated in rural areas than those of the worst spikes over the past 16 months (though the virus didn’t spare any corner of the country). What appears to be different now, even within more rural regions, is a blossoming of outbreaks that are at the moment highly clustered, particularly along the border between Arkansas and Missouri as well as northeast Florida and southeast Georgia.
But any such observation comes with the same caveat that we on the Numbers Beat have been striving to communicate since the beginning: The number of cases is contingent on the number of people being tested for the virus, a figure that can only underestimate the true picture, not exaggerate it.
“I don’t worry that we are missing the severe cases,” including when a patient is hospitalized, Nuzzo says. “It’s everybody else I worry about. We have turned our telescope to a different part of the sky.”
Murray Côté, an associate professor of health policy and management at Texas A&M University, agrees. “I still think we’re missing a chunk” of positive cases, he says. “It’s a confluence of things. We don’t have the testing facilities we used to have [earlier in the pandemic].” That chunk, both Côté and Nuzzo say, is likely made up of people who are experiencing mild or no symptoms, but can still be part of a transmission chain.
I last spoke with Côté in June 2020 when unwinding Pence’s claim that the summer surge was a product of more testing. Our conversation this time felt both reversed, as we were discussing a possible under-calculation of reality, as well as strangely familiar, because a year ago, we were seeing a new surge amid a widespread relaxation of safety measures—not unlike the freedom from safety measures like maskless dining we currently enjoy.
“We’re behaving exactly the same way as we did last year,” Côté says. To refresh your memory: Around this time in 2020, the U.S. had a brief moment where cases began to drop. Some Americans started to ease their social distancing and mask wearing, and it led to both a summer surge and, after another lull, the massive winter spike that turned out to be the worst stretch of the global outbreak to hit any country in the world. What’s different now is that this time we have highly effective vaccines—but, while inoculation can protect individuals, vaccination rates in many communities across the U.S. remain too low to prevent fresh outbreaks.
In the heady days of spring, 2021, many states began reducing the frequency of their reports on new cases to every few days or once a week. That was a foolish mistake when, even with a massive reduction in testing, the seven-day rolling average of new cases never dipped below 10,000 at the national level. Given that the best-case scenario—even before the emergence of the Delta variant—was a reduction of cases and deaths to endemic levels for years to come, states must pair their desperate attempts to vaccinate more individuals with a renewed focus on surveillance and contact tracing.
For now, the best way to prevent the current spikes from becoming a proper fourth wave is vaccination (which, even if cases continue to rise, can help prevent hospitalizations and deaths), increased surveillance, and a return to mitigation measures. Indeed, Los Angeles County on Sunday reinstituted mandatory mask-wearing in businesses and public areas, a major rollback after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on May 13 that fully vaccinated individuals could shed their masks in many scenarios. Unless states can rapidly revive widespread and easily available testing, L.A. will be far from the last county to ask residents to mask up once again.