A little more than three months ago, Lawrence Gostin, a professor at Georgetown University and the director of the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law, warned that a new surge of COVID-19 infections could appear in the fall.
He wasn’t exactly alone in anticipating the combination of cooler weather and more indoor gathering might make for pandemic trouble. Still, according to a slew of recent data, news reports, and conversations with experts, that surge appears to already be upon us.
The only wrinkle? A second wave of coronavirus infections in the United States will look less like a tsunami and more like a “series of uncontrolled forest fires,” as Gostin told The Daily Beast, nodding to the blazes that have consumed the West in recent weeks and shown little sign of abating.
“I see zero progress in terms of having a national strategy for testing, contact tracing, and isolation,” he said. “I see people losing their will to stay isolated, to wear masks, to avoid social gatherings. And so there’s no sign of either a national governmental plan or individual behavior that’s going to keep these [infections] from emerging.”
Global trade is just now beginning to recover following months of pandemic-related lockdowns. The U.S. economy is once again showing signs of life. But behind the numbers are families getting back from vacations, children returning to school, and their parents returning to work. And that has, not surprisingly, been accompanied by a spike in COVID-19 cases. Daily cases in the U.S. hit 40,000 on Friday, with, a 9 percent nationwide increase compared to just a week earlier, and the highest daily rate since July.
The U.S. makes up less than 5 percent of the global population, but now accounts for approximately 20 percent of the world’s COVID deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. It’s hard to imagine the nightmarish threshold of 200,000 dead the U.S. recently eclipsed will be the last marker of American COVID-19 exceptionalism.
“We don’t seem to be able to dig ourselves out of this,” Gostin said.
College students in Kentucky have been urged to avoid parties as infections on campus rise, Wisconsin is nearing a 30 percent positive rate, and New York City, which has been largely successful in flattening the curve, is now seeing hot spots emerge once again. Hospitalizations have shown signs of ticking back up, while governors long resistant to COVID-19 safety measures continue to insist on aggressively reopening. Among other standouts, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday announced a full reopening of the state’s bars and restaurants—a decision Dr. Anthony Fauci called “very concerning”—and his education commissioner has moved to force Miami to reopen schools.
At the same time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), long a respected nonpartisan institution, has been consistently undermined by the Trump administration.
“What’s been challenging is that we don’t really have good surveillance data, [because] the CDC is straitjacketed and not being allowed to respond to the epidemic,” said Jeffrey Klausner, an M.D. and professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health who previously worked for the CDC.
To Klausner, any “second wave” of COVID would actually be the third, after waves of infection throughout the Northeast in the spring and then in newer hot spots like Florida, Texas, and California in early summer. But as in the past, the next round of outbreaks will be very geographically specific, Klausner told The Daily Beast.
Klausner said previously infected populations were likely less susceptible to getting COVID again. Still, any population centers where people are living and working in crowded settings remain at risk. This includes jails and prisons, where outbreaks have been particularly difficult to control.
Orhan Hakli, associate dean of the School of Nursing and Health Sciences at New York’s Manhattanville College, said quantifying a potential second wave is tough considering we don’t have particularly good data from the initial one.
“Don’t forget, when coronavirus first hit us, we didn’t really have good testing ability,” Hakli told The Daily Beast. “So we don’t even really know how high the infection rate was compared to now.”
Hakli remained optimistic about emerging treatment options, and a mortality rate that seems to be on the decline.
“I don’t expect infection rates to go down,” he said. “People are out and about, they are sick and tired of staying home, we decided to open colleges. The host is out...I’m preparing myself to live with my mask until the end of 2021.”
Gostin similarly doesn’t see a “calming” of the pandemic in the U.S. for at least a year, with the nation perhaps “beginning to climb our way out of it” by the second or third quarter of 2021. An effective vaccine will be a good start, but even that won’t be a magic bullet, he argued.
The coronavirus “isn’t ever going to go away,” Gostin explained, “but I think we’re going to learn to live with it through a combination of better treatment, better vaccines, and better behavior.”
Unfortunately, achieving that will be an uphill battle thanks to cultural factors as much as epidemiological ones. While some European and other countries that had contained their outbreaks have experienced their own surges, the United States stands alone.
“The U.S., with its kind of ‘rugged individualism,’ and with a president that really discounts science and doesn’t encourage the population to obey public health advice—we are an outlier,” Gostin said. “Other countries are much better at looking out for the common good, and here it’s all about ‘Me.’ It’s sad.”