The latest surge in U.S. coronavirus cases appears to be much larger than the two previous ones, and it is all but certain to get worse — a lot worse. But experts say there are also reasons to think the nation is better able to deal with the virus this time.
“We’re definitely in a better place” when it comes to improved medical tools and knowledge, said William Hanage, a Harvard University infectious-disease researcher.
To be sure, the alarming wave of cases across the U.S. looks bigger and is more widespread than the surges that happened in the spring, mainly in the Northeast, and then in the summer, primarily in the Sun Belt.
Newly confirmed infections in the U.S. are running at all-time highs of well over 100,000 per day, pushing the running total to more than 10 million. Deaths — a lagging indicator, since it takes time for people to get sick and die — are climbing again, reaching an average of more than 930 a day.
Hospitals are getting slammed. And unlike the earlier outbreaks, this one is not confined to a region or two. Cases are on the rise in 49 states.
“The virus is spreading in a largely uncontrolled fashion across the vast majority of the country,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious-disease expert at Vanderbilt University.
While deaths are still well below the U.S. peak of about 2,200 per day back in April, some researchers estimate the nation’s overall toll will hit about 400,000 by Feb. 1, up from about 240,000 now.
But there is also some good news.
Doctors now better know how to treat severe cases, meaning higher percentages of the COVID-19 patients who go into intensive care units are coming out alive. Patients have the benefit of new treatments, namely remdesivir, the steroid dexamethasone and an antibody drug that won emergency-use approval from the Food and Drug Administration on Monday. Also, testing is more widely available.
In addition, a vaccine appears to be on the horizon, perhaps around the end of the year, with Pfizer this week reporting early results showing that its experimental shots are a surprising 90% effective at preventing the disease.
While the first surge in the Northeast caught many Americans unprepared and cut an especially deadly swath through nursing homes, the second crest along the nation’s Southern and Western rim was attributed mostly to heedless behavior, particularly among young adults over Memorial Day and July Fourth, and hot weather that sent people indoors, where the virus spreads more easily.
The fall surge similarly has been blamed largely on cold weather driving people inside and disdain for masks and social distancing.
Even in parts of the country that have been through coronavirus surges before, “you see people breaking out of it” and letting their guard down, Schaffner said.
“There really is COVID fatigue that is blending into COVID annoyance,” he said.
The short-term outlook is grim, with colder weather and holiday season ahead. Generations of family members gathering indoors for meals for extended periods “is not a recipe for anything good,” Hanage said.