The number of coronavirus cases in the US has stabilized in recent weeks, retaining about half of the growth from the last wave of this summer.
While new cases have fallen in some states, they are on the rise in others, particularly in the cold-weather states of some regions.
Southern states that were a major driver of this summer’s surge now have some of the lowest cases. Two months ago, Florida and Texas together accounted for nearly a quarter (22%) of all new cases. Now those two major states account for only 6% of all cases.
Florida cut new cases to a tenth of what they were two months ago and Texas to a fifth.
That should sound like good news. But with less dramatic declines in other less populous states — and slight increases in some others, particularly the Northeast and mountain regions — overall US numbers remain stable.
It’s confusing and the numbers can send people a mixed message. However, they are not sending mixed messages to epidemiologists, who do not foresee a good winter for the US or the world.
Too many people remain unvaccinated, and too many people continue to ignore and even fight the advice to wear face masks indoors with other people. This dangerous combination could lead to more spikes, even if not as high as in the recent past, and in areas beyond those where rising cases are currently seen.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen in the coming weeks. But I have a feeling it won’t be pretty,” Michael Osterholm, chief of the infectious disease research and policy center at the University of Minnesota, told CNN . .
“Today is a very sad day,” epidemiologist Ali Mokdad, who has been monitoring the coronavirus pandemic at the University of Washington since its inception, told CNN. “The number of cases is going up. It came down. This is at a time when the United States has all the tools we need to prevent a wave, all the tools we need to save lives. We have the best vaccines and we’ve had enough of them,” he said.
“And people aren’t willing to get them.”
False sense of security
Mokdad said states like Florida have a false sense of security.
“Florida has a large population of elderly people who have been vaccinated. And the young people just got infected. So the virus had no more people to infect,” he said.
But he said immunity is declining for both groups.
“There will be a lot of winter trips to Florida,” he said. “Infections will start all over again,” he predicted. “We are so connected.”
Diagnoses and hospitalizations are both up in Michigan, with hospitalizations rising 20% in the past week, according to state data.
“Metro Detroit is becoming a hotspot again,” Dr. Nick Gilpin, director of infection prevention and epidemiology at Beaumont Health, a southeastern Michigan health system, said at a news conference Thursday.
“I have a feeling we’re going to be in this world for the next few months because I don’t see much that can change unless people start radically changing their behavior. This could be a four or five month affair,” Gilpin added. .
Like Mokdad, Gilpin blames unvaccinated people and a refusal to wear masks. It is hitting hospitals and clinics hard, he said.
“I mean, it’s brutal. Nobody wants to see these Covid patients like this anymore. But we’re masking ourselves and trying to help people get better,” Gilpin said.
“That said, there probably isn’t a hospital in the state that isn’t dealing with staff shortages. It’s tough, especially as we look at a fourth wave that could last through the winter. This rise will be more of a marathon than a sprint.”
Millions not yet vaccinated could trigger new spikes
In Colorado, where cases have risen 30% in the past week, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, Governor Jared Polis stated that the entire state was at high risk of transmission or exposure to Covid-19 and signed an executive order. which stated that anyone over the age of 18 was eligible for a booster dose of vaccine.
“We want to ensure that Coloradans have all the resources to protect themselves from this deadly virus and to help reduce the stress for our hospitals and healthcare workers. Every Coloradan is now eligible for the booster so they can protect themselves and their families,” Polis said in a statement.
Mokdad approves. “Science tells us we need three doses to be immune,” he said. “We’re losing credibility as scientists unless you say so — we need three doses to be protected.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have OK booster doses for most U.S. adults, and the FDA is considering extending the authorization for booster doses of the Pfizer vaccine to all adults.
Osterholm thinks boosting people will help — but says it’s far more important to get more people vaccinated in the first place.
“But I have to tell you that given the vaccination rate… we could definitely see big increases in both metropolitan areas where, with the population density as it is, the number of national cases could really increase in a short period of time,” he added.
An estimated 60 million Americans remain unvaccinated. That’s enough people to fuel new peaks, Osterholm said.
“In general, there is still a lot of human wood left to burn this coronavirus wildfire,” he said.
Even in states, cities and counties with high vaccination coverage, enough people remain unvaccinated or undervaccinated to prevent the spread of the virus. And if immunity wanes as quickly as some studies indicate, Osterholm fears more breakthrough infections, even among the vaccinated.
What could be in store for this winter?
Osterholm is pessimistic about the coming weeks. “That fact, coupled with Delta, schools and upcoming holidays, has left me skeptical that we won’t see any new hot spots emerge in this country in the coming weeks and months. So where do I see us going? continue to see peaks. They may not be nearly as high as the ones we just had, but they will happen.”
And those are not limited to current hotspots, Mokdad predicted. The holidays will take care of that. “People are going out like there’s no Covid-19,” he said. “We’re going to see Americans travel — Thanksgiving and then all the way through the New Year. We’re going to see an increase, and that increase is going to be really big.”
And many states have such low vaccination levels that they are bonfires waiting to be lit, Mokdad said.
“I mean, West Virginia” [is] 41.1% fully vaccinated. So 60% of the population has at least no immunity to infection,” he said.
“So, what do you expect? We’re going to have a rise. If you look at Montana, 51%. Wyoming, 44.6%. I mean, you could go on. There are so many states under 50 now. Louisiana, 48, 1%. Alabama, 45.2%.”
These same states, Mokdad and Osterholm both pointed out, also have populations that are largely resistant to mask use.
“Nobody’s listening,” Mokdad said gloomily. He said he and fellow epidemiologists discussed how to draw attention to the dire situation.
“Some of us talked about going on a hunger strike. We’re really frustrated. It’s depressing that we know how to protect our people and we’re not doing it,” he said.