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America’s out-of-control Covid-19 surge, explained in 600 words

Coronavirus is surging in the US, and the holidays stand to make it worse.

President Donald Trump at the White House on October 5, shortly after he was treated at Walter Reed Medical Center for Covid-19.
President Donald Trump at the White House on October 5, shortly after he was treated at Walter Reed Medical Center for Covid-19.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Over the past couple weeks, America has gotten some great news: Covid-19 vaccines in clinical trials may be more than 90 percent effective. It may seem like a sign that it’s finally okay to ease up on coronavirus-related restrictions.

But experts say the opposite is true: With a vaccine still several months away, and the US currently seeing a massive surge in coronavirus cases, now is the time to do everything in our power to slow the spread of the virus so more people survive and make it across the finish line.

That means controlling a new third surge of Covid-19 that is massive, shows no signs of slowing down, and will likely get worse as the country heads into the holiday season.

As of November 17, the US’s weekly average for daily new cases was at 158,000 — an all-time high. That came just 11 days after the country breached a seven-day average of 100,000 for the first time. It’s truly national, with all states seeing increases in cases.

Hospitalizations are setting records, too: As of November 17, nearly 77,000 people were hospitalized for Covid-19. Coronavirus deaths are rising as well, with a weekly average of nearly 1,200 a day on November 17. Since deaths are a lagging indicator, Brown University School of Public Health dean Ashish Jha says an eventual death toll of 2,000 deaths a day —the highest since spring — is “essentially baked in.”

The increase so far is a result of widespread reopenings and public fatigue. Local and state governments have eased all kinds of restrictions over the past few months, letting schools, sports events, bars, indoor dining, and much more reopen. The federal government, under President Donald Trump, has encouraged the reopenings.

Meanwhile, much of the public has become tired of dealing with the pandemic. That’s not only led to more exposure at reopened workplaces and businesses, but also to more house parties and other private gatherings. As more people interact, they’re much more likely to infect each other.

A key issue is the US never actually suppressed its Covid-19 cases — especially compared to more successful countries like Australia, Canada, and Germany. That left a lot of virus out there. So when governments and people eased up, it was more likely that the virus would spread.

The holidays will likely make things worse. Starting with Thanksgiving, family and friends will come together from around the country to celebrate. These kinds of gatherings are tremendously risky for Covid-19: People will gather close together for potentially hours or days; take off masks, if they had them on at all; and then talk, shout, laugh, and sing while maskless — spewing coronavirus-carrying particles all over each other.

“We’re going to see much more transmission as a result of that,” Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist, told me. That means likely more Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in the weeks to follow.

A vaccine is the way out. But between the remaining clinical trials and the massive effort that will be required to make enough doses and then get them to hundreds of millions of people, a vaccine is still likely months away.

So the US is in a tricky spot: We finally can see the end, but we have to keep at the basics — social distancing, masking, testing, and contact tracing — to guarantee more of us survive the ongoing surge of Covid-19 and make it across the finish line. That might mean, unfortunately, canceling those Thanksgiving and Christmas plans.

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