A year after hospitals found themselves at the breaking point, and with a new administration in the White House and vaccines flying off shelves across the country, America’s doctors are looking down the barrel of a fresh coronavirus disaster.
Reckless travel. Increasing hospitalizations. Surging case counts. And, doctors and other frontline medical workers say, their own pleas for the public—and elected officials—to remain vigilant falling on deaf ears.
“It's been a year of preventable death. At every single step of the way, the U.S. has just refused to do the right thing,” said Andrew Goldstein, an internal medicine doctor at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. “I think we’re all sort of like, ‘Ugh why is this happening again, and why did so many places rush to reopen?’”
“People really want to be in celebration mode,” he added, “but it’s denial.”
Though nearly 15 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated, cases continue to surge in places like New York, New Jersey, and Michigan—early hot zones of the coronavirus pandemic. Case counts were up more than 10 percent nationally last week over the week before, according to the CDC director, and the seven-day average of hospital admissions was rising in 25 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Hospitalization rates in Michigan alone were up more than 50 percent in one week alone.
Meanwhile, other states have moved aggressively to loosen their public health restrictions in recent weeks, lifting caps on indoor gatherings, and ditching mask mandates entirely. And college students have surged to places like Florida for spring break, which public health experts said could lead to nationwide spikes like those seen after Thanksgiving and Christmas.
For some doctors, the news cycle had taken on a kind of exhausting déjà vu. Peter Chai, an emergency medicine doctor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said he was still urging people to take the same precautions he had last year.
“We understand people are fatigued, but the experience of the last year has taught us that every time we get together and are unmasked and unvaccinated, the disease is going to spread,” he said. “I think at some point we just need to recognize that and just hold on for a little longer.”
A visibly emotional CDC Director Rochelle Walensky issued a similar message at a press conference Monday, asking Americans to “please hold on a little while longer,” while adding that she had a “feeling of impending doom” over the rising case counts. President Joe Biden also called on the public to stay strong, and asked governors to reimplement their mask mandates and hold off on reopening plans.
“We’re giving up hard-fought, hard-won gains,” he said from the White House Monday. “And as much as we’re doing America, it’s time to do even more.”
Biden also promised to rapidly expand the number of vaccination sites in the coming weeks, and said nine out of 10 American adults should be eligible for the vaccine by mid-April.
But Goldstein cautioned that it was too soon to declare victory, noting that while the majority of the elderly population had been inoculated against the virus, the younger populations more at risk of spreading it had not. The data appear to bear this out, with multiple states reporting surges in hospitalizations for younger patients in recent weeks.
Goldstein also said he felt the Biden administration could have been tougher on the states, and done more to prevent a potential fourth wave.
“It feels like the political will just isn’t really there to take a strong stance,” he said. “It’s a disappointment that they’re not using the full scope of federal power to really bring this under control.”
Biden did issue a nationwide mask mandate shortly after taking office, but, in a nod to what some experts said were limited powers, it applied only to public transportation and federal agencies. The worst surge in COVID cases to date came in January, as Biden prepared to take over from President Donald Trump, and the country only recently emerged from the depths of it. Biden has also squabbled with COVID-skeptical governors like Ron DeSantis of Florida, who never instituted a mask mandate and in fact has barred localities from enforcing coronavirus restrictions.
Miguel Escalon, a rehabilitation doctor at Mount Sinai in New York, said he worried that hospitals wouldn’t have the staff to weather another major surge. Although hospital staff are better informed, better equipped, and largely vaccinated at this point, they have also been resigning in droves due to burnout and exhaustion.
He said colleagues complained most about the uncertainty of their situation; never knowing whether they would be plunged back into the chaos and trauma of last spring, or confronted with a new, deadly variant they couldn’t fight.
“My first worry really is about people on the frontline—not just the physicians, but also the nursing staff, and the nursing assistants, and everyone who’s just worked to the ground,” Escalon said.
“The emotional gas tank is on empty,” he added. “We’re running on fumes.”