Credit: The Covid Tracking Project

A Very Dark Pandemic Winter Is Nigh

A deluge of Covid-19 hospitalizations is a warning that a surge in deaths is coming

Were exasperation levels among health experts plotted alongside surging Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations, the curve would be off the charts this week. After months of arguing for relatively straightforward infection prevention measures like indoor crowd limits, physical distancing, and masks for all, and being ignored by the White House and many governors, the exact scenario they predicted and feared is playing out across America.

Frustrations are boiling over on Twitter just as the reality of what’s ahead — another surge in deaths amid an out-of-control pandemic—comes into focus.

“It is very difficult to watch our case counts soar, with few meaningful efforts to turn things around,” says Caitlin Rivers, PhD, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University. “Rising hospitalizations keeps me up at night. The pandemic will accelerate until we slow it down.”

“Honestly, I don’t even know what to say anymore,” tweeted epidemiologist Saskia Popescu, PhD, an assistant professor at George Mason University, upon sharing the latest chart above.

Hospitalizations in the United States have soared above 50,000, deaths are on the rise again, and a record 116,255 new cases on November 5 promises more misery to come.

“The rate of new hospitalizations is alarming,” says microbiologist Jessica Malaty Rivera, MS, head of science communication for the Covid Tracking Project. “And we know from previous surges that deaths will follow in a few weeks.”

A death sentence for the most vulnerable

While the ratio of deaths to cases has declined in recent months, Covid-19 remains a very deadly disease — much more deadly than the flu, despite White House claims to the contrary. The shift owes in part to improved care of Covid-19 patients, and in part to younger people representing a higher proportion of infections over the summer. That wave of summertime infections has turned into a tsunami that’s now sloshing into all corners of the country.

Meanwhile, the White House’s plan, or rather the lack of any coordinated national mitigation effort, has come to rely on the dangerous idea that the nation can achieve natural herd immunity by letting the coronavirus run its course while high-risk individuals, including people in nursing homes, are protected. Scientists have repeatedly said such “focused protection” won’t work, as an uncontrolled pandemic will eventually make its way back into all segments of the population.

The scientific consensus on natural herd immunity as a strategy: “This is a dangerous fallacy unsupported by scientific evidence.”

The reality of allowing the coronavirus to run wild is already proving disastrous, as cases are surging in nursing homes again and deaths are ticking back up. This data, the latest available, shows the surge only through October 18, before what doctors are saying is an even steeper rise in recent days:

Credit: AHCA, NCAL, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services
Credit: AHCA, NCAL, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services

“So much for ‘focused protection’,” says Angela Rasmussen, PhD, a virologist at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

No excuses

“There’s no excuse for this many nursing home outbreaks eight-nine months into the pandemic,” says Eli Perenevich, MD, an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist at the University of Iowa’s Carver College of Medicine.

Rising cases and increasing hospitalizations represent far more than numbers and charts, of course. In Iowa, “nursing home residents are filling hospitals, dying, and because of the nursing home outbreaks we can’t discharge patients — hospitals are full,” Perenevich says. “Health care workers are burning out.”

The impact, doctors and epidemiologists say, will be a repeat across the nation of the dark days in New York in the spring: reduced care for the Covid-19 patients and less care available to people with other potentially life-threatening conditions, too. Already, studies find deaths for heart disease, cancer, and other conditions have risen during the pandemic due to overflowing hospitals, limits to all but urgent care, and people avoiding cancer screenings and other medical care out of fear of catching Covid-19.

The possibility of large holiday gatherings and travel from and to far-flung places only adds to concern, and scientists have advised strongly against them.

“Do you all understand what 116,000 cases of Covid-19 exponentially growing means as we head into the holiday season?” asks Krutika Kuppalli, MD, an assistant professor of infectious diseases at Medical University of South Carolina. She answers herself: “Hospitals are at capacity. We have over 1,000 people dying a day (that’s two airplanes for perspective). ICUs are full. Health care workers are tired. This is bad.”

As Dr. Anthony Fauci put it recently: “We’re in for a whole lot of hurt.”

Independent health and science journalist, former editor-in-chief of LiveScience, writing about how we age and how to optimize your mind and body through time.

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