It’s been a tough winter for nurses and healthcare workers here in the U.S. The last few months have been some of the deadliest on record in terms of the coronavirus. It took the U.S. just five weeks to go from 300,000 deaths to 400,000. In the U.S. right now, someone is dying from COVID-19 every 26 seconds. The CDC is warning that the death toll could reach as half a million by mid-February.
If you’re tired of grim statistics, there’s some good news: Health officials now believe that the current surge in the U.S. is coming to an end. In 35 states, the number of COVID-19 cases is falling week over week, and in 18 states, the number of COVID-19-related deaths is falling as well.
Does that mean the end is in sight? Not so fast.
The Beginning of the End?
According to the many immunologists and public health experts tracking the spread of the virus, numbers have been steadily declining for the last two weeks in certain parts of the U.S.
Ali Mokdad, of University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, says, “Yes, we have peaked in terms of cases. We are coming down, slowly. This is very good news — very good news.”
The total number of people in the U.S. currently hospitalized with COVID-19 now stands at 122,700, as of yesterday. That’s down from 132,000 just a week prior.
Public health officials say we should see a drop in the daily number of deaths if these trends continue.
“Based on current trends, the worst appears to be over,” says Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “We are headed to a better place.”
Why the Change?
Officials say the downward trend is likely related to holiday travel. Any surge in infections that may have resulted over the holidays is finally coming to an end. Mokdad estimates that we likely saw the peak on January 16th, just over two weeks after New Years.
It may also have something to do with changing attitudes about the pandemic. We know that more people are open to taking a vaccine for COVID-19 than they were back in the fall or summer of last year, which could mean that more people are starting to take the threat seriously, staying home, wearing a mask out in public, and avoiding close contact with others.
Possible Trouble Ahead
However, not everyone is ready to celebrate.
There are still several dangerous hotspots throughout the country, including Arizona and southern California. Community transmission also remains high in many states.
Researchers are stressing that these numbers will likely remain high for the next few weeks, if not longer. There’s always a lag when it comes to tracking the latest number of infections and deaths. As a result, it may take months for the country’s death rate statistics to show a decline.
Despite his optimism, Dr. David Rubin, who runs the PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, says, “It’s going to take a while. There’s going to be a long tail, unfortunately,” Rubin says.
The CDC isn’t ready to declare an end to the current surge.
“CDC scientists would not be comfortable saying the outbreak has peaked until there have been several weeks of decline in newly reported cases,” wrote CDC spokesman Jason McDonald in a recent email.
Others are worried that the recent dip in the number of infections and deaths may be temporary as people start to change their behavior over time.
As Rivers put it, “Often what we see is a sort of cyclical pattern where things worsen, and so people stay home more. They are more vigilant about wearing masks. They skip the restaurants or the get-togethers. But as things improve people relax a little bit and incorporate some of those risky behaviors again and things can again accelerate.”
Several variants of the coronavirus have also been spotted across the country. Most of them don’t appear to be an increased health threat, but some variants may spread more easily.
According to Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown School of Public Health, “I think this is a really substantial threat. The experience from the U.K., Ireland and other countries that have seen this is it can very quickly reverse all of the gains and make things dramatically worse. So, I am very, very worried about this.”
You might want to hold off on popping the champagne, but hopefully the worst of the pandemic is already behind us.