The US is entering a “perilous” cold and flu season with high levels of Covid-19 transmission.
Experts said cooler weather would drive people indoors and help the virus spread, just as pandemic fatigue sets in.
Covid-19 transmission is still high across much of the south, filling many hospitals in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain regions, and ticking up slightly in the north-east. Experts said if current trends held, the death toll could reach 400,000 people before the year is out. More than 215,000 people in the US so far have died of coronavirus, according to Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus research center.
“It’s very important now that the country undertake a really serious commitment to adopting the kinds of policies that are necessary to prevent this virus getting transmitted through a community,” said Stephen Woolf, a professor of family medicine and population health at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“Not having large gatherings, not having big games in football stadiums, not having big political rallies, and many other things the society and politicians are resisting,” he said.
Instead, states such as South Dakota, Montana, Wisconsin and Wyoming are all seeing increasing rates of new cases. North Dakota is seeing its worst surge in deaths since the pandemic began in the US early in 2020, a trend that started in mid-September and has only worsened.
In the deep south, such as Tennessee, already-broad transmission is trending upward. In New York and New Jersey, there are small but noticeable increases.
“I look at it as less of a wave than [that] people have let down their guard in terms of very strict social distancing regulations,” said Howard Markel, pandemic historian and professor of health at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. “Most of us are also getting pandemic fatigue; we just want it to be over.”
At the same time, the effect of social distancing measures has perhaps never been clearer. New research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, led by Woolf, found strict social distancing cut the duration of local epidemics almost in half.
In the Democratic-led New York, for instance, a sharp increase in Covid-19 transmission last spring was followed by strict social distancing measures. The local epidemic lasted about nine weeks, leading to an “A”-shaped trajectory.
By contrast, outbreaks in Republican-led sun belt states, such as Florida and Texas, went on for up to 17 weeks as overriding economic concerns drove early re-openings of businesses. Led by rhetoric and personal example from Donald Trump, Republicans have been more resistant to face covering and social distancing mandates.
“The concern I have going into the fall is this is a very perilous point in time,” said Woolf. “We’re entering the winter flu season, and we’re not going into it with low baseline rates [of coronavirus] like we should have.”
The same research found Covid-19 deaths could be undercounted by as much as 20%. If that is accurate, and the US continues along current trends, “by the end of the year it is likely that the total number of excess deaths in 2020 in comparison to the previous years will be greater than 400,000 – primarily attributable to the Covid-19 pandemic,” researchers at Johns Hopkins University and Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health wrote in JAMA.
They added that among the most disturbing aspects of the pandemic was the continued, disproportionate impact on communities of color. If people of color had died at the same, lower rate as white Americans, “19,500 black, 8,400 Latino, 600 Indigenous, and 70 Pacific Islander individuals in the US would still be alive”.
More than nine in 10 Americans remain vulnerable to Covid-19 infection, according to the director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Robert Redfield, even as some states have adopted few social restrictions.
“I worry the winter will be the same if not worse than last winter and spring,” said Markel. “I sincerely hope I’m wrong.”