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The US Covid-19 epidemic hit a deadly new milestone, and help isn’t on the way

More than 120,000 new Covid-19 cases in a single day: We should have seen this coming.

An Austin-Travis County medic loads a patient with COVID-19 symptoms into an ambulance on August 05, 2020 in Austin, Texas.
A medic in Austin, Texas, loads a patient with Covid-19 symptoms into an ambulance. Texas now leads the US in Covid-19 cases.
John Moore/Getty Images

The United States has passed another stunning benchmark in the Covid-19 pandemic, recording 121,200 new cases on Thursday.

That followed Wednesday’s record-breaking 100,000-plus case toll. And the worst is almost certainly still to come. This doesn’t look like the peak; we’re in the midst of a climb. Next week, another record may be broken.

What’s more, the continued deterioration of the public health situation is happening all over the country. There’s no single hot spot or epicenter. With the exception of a handful of states, the virus is spreading uncontrolled north to south, west to east.

Covid Tracking

The concern isn’t just about the record number of new infections — the number of people in hospitals across the country is ascending, too, hitting 53,322 on November 5, according to the Covid Tracking Project. That’s the highest number since early August. And the trend has been accompanied by an increase in daily Covid-19 deaths, which has crept above 1,000 several days over the past two weeks.

It should be noted that the mortality rate of Covid-19 has declined since the start of the pandemic. Doctors have learned more about how to treat the illness, more testing has helped identify hidden infections, and a better understanding of Covid-19 symptoms has allowed patients to seek help earlier in the course of the illness.

But an uncontrolled spread of the infection means that cases will still rise and hospitals could get overwhelmed, undoing the gains in saving lives and raising the death rate again.

These facts are a rebuke to President Trump, who has claimed throughout the pandemic that concerns about Covid-19 were overblown, that it was simply being weaponized as an election issue, and that the disease would fade away on its own.

In fact, scientists, including Trump’s own advisers, have raised the alarm that the worst days of the pandemic lie ahead — with record spread in the cold winter months, when people are more likely to gather indoors. “We are entering the most concerning and most deadly phase of this pandemic,” White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Deborah Birx wrote in a November 2 memo.

The need for immediate action against the virus is immense. But nothing is likely to change in the next two and a half months.

Without a vaccine, the tactics needed to limit the spread of Covid-19 are the same as they’ve been throughout the pandemic: widespread testing, social distancing, good hygiene, wearing face masks consistently, and so on.

But the US is still struggling to implement these measures. Some hospitals continue to have difficulty getting enough personal protective equipment while testing shortages persist. Many states have yet to implement mandates to wear face masks in public places, and some are already easing the few pandemic control measures they had in place. From the federal government, the public health messaging around the pandemic continues to be incoherent as President Trump and some of his advisers undermine health officials.

The presidential election has been called for Biden, but the concerns aren’t going away.

In Biden, America will get a leader who can’t do much, even if he wanted to, in the short term: He can’t take power until after the inauguration, on January 20.

Between now and January, one thing’s for sure: The virus won’t stop. As the winter progresses, cases are expected to climb. Biden will have the challenge of stopping a pandemic that’s been doubly infected with partisan attitudes about its severity, and he’ll have to do the hard work of coordinating the country’s fractured state-by-state, county-by-county responses to the outbreaks.

All the while, Covid-19 will continue sickening and killing. And the more people the virus infects, the harder the pandemic becomes to contain.

We were warned

Researchers and health officials have been concerned for months that a fall and winter spike in Covid-19 cases was looming.

“There’s a possibility that the assault of the virus on our nation next winter will actually be even more difficult than the one we just went through,” CDC Director Robert Redfield told the Washington Post in April. “And when I’ve said this to others, they kind of put their head back, they don’t understand what I mean.”

Americans were warned, as early as March, that there would be no going back to normal life until community transmission of the virus had been suppressed. We were warned that any successes achieved through business closures and social distancing would have to be replaced by equally effective public health measures if we were to take steps toward returning to life as normal. In many parts of the country, those alternative strategies never came.

Scientists also told us that we’d be living with the pandemic for potentially years without a vaccine. That’s still true.

Yet this fall, as it became more apparent that the United States was on track for a major increase in Covid-19 cases, states like Florida were relaxing restrictions, allowing bars and restaurants to reopen for indoor patrons. (A similar pattern emerged this summer as cities and states relaxed restrictions even as cases were rising, fueling a spike in new infections in June.)

Trump essentially campaigned on a promise to continue pushing ahead with reopening the economy, even at the cost of public health. While a majority of Americans want to see the pandemic controlled before reopening, even if it hurts the economy, 76 percent of Republicans in exit polls took the opposite view: They want the economy to reopen first. With Trump still in office until the end of January, we can expect this approach to reign through a dark winter.

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