This is not the time to let your guard down.
Over the weekend, many people breathed a collective sigh of relief as it became apparent that Joe Biden would become the 46th President of the United States. During his victory speech on Sunday, Biden assured people that he would immediately create a task force of experts to guide his administration’s response to the pandemic; that same day, his transition team confirmed that the U.S. would rejoin the World Health Organization. A day later, pharmaceutical company Pfizer announced that its experimental vaccine appeared to be highly effective at preventing covid-19 in early data from its ongoing clinical trial—the surest sign yet that a successful vaccine is in our future.
As heartening as these developments are, the sad news is that it’s too late to save us from the harsh winter that covid-19 will bring. The pandemic has become a raging wildfire worldwide and especially in the U.S., and any of the solutions that could bring it under control are out of reach in the short term. There are still steps we can personally take to lower our risk of contracting or spreading the virus, but make no mistake: Things are really bad now, and they’re likely to get much worse before they get better.
On Monday, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum announced that the state’s hospitals have become 100% full, partly due to the rising hospitalizations from the pandemic. Elsewhere, hospitals in Iowa, Idaho, and Kansas are facing similar strains on their resources. Today will likely set a new record in the U.S. for current covid-19 hospitalizations, as they rise over 60,000. These patients are a lagging indicator for what’s been an accelerating surge in reported daily cases, with new records set repeatedly in the past two weeks. All the while, reported deaths have climbed over 1,000 a day again, with the official U.S. death toll now around 240,000.
During the spring and summer peaks of the pandemic in the U.S., large outbreaks were at least confined to certain parts of the country (the Northeast during the spring, and the South during the summer). The summer weather in many places, while not sufficient to stop the pandemic, may have also hindered its spread, both by making it harder for the virus to survive and by allowing people to spend more time outdoors, where the risk of transmission is much lower. But cases are rising almost everywhere now, including previously hard-hit places like New York City, and the winter’s cold will likely prove much friendlier to the coronavirus, as it does for many respiratory infections.
As Anthony Fauci, the head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, put it himself last week: “We’re in for a whole lot of hurt.”
This is all bad enough, but the cherry on top is that the outgoing administration has abandoned even the pretense of trying to control the pandemic. Instead, Trump and the GOP are—however ineptly—spending their free time trying to overturn the legitimate election results of last week through frivolous lawsuits, while refusing to cede any power. Whether these attempts succeed or not, it’s an indication that states and citizens have been left to fend for themselves.
Trump isn’t the only one who’s enabling the pandemic. Last weekend, to the worries of many public health experts, crowds of people packed together to celebrate Biden’s victory. People are finding ways to justify spending Thanksgiving with their grandparents and extended family members. And restaurants are herding people into outdoor but still-enclosed spaces. None of these activities may be as bad as getting in a night of karaoke with 100 of your closest friends at a bar, but they’re not certainly the safest things to be doing in the middle of an uncontrolled pandemic. At the same time, it’s understandable. People are fatigued and running low on the vigilance needed to contain the virus.
That’s not to say there’s no hope on the horizon. Pfizer’s experimental vaccine, should it prove as effective as it appears, would be a tremendous scientific accomplishment, as well as a very encouraging sign for other vaccines in development. But right now, the company’s claims amount to nothing more than a well-written press release. Russia’s Sputnik-V vaccine, now also claimed to be over 90% effective, has even less legitimacy behind it, given the government’s willingness to approve its use with no publicly available data earlier this summer.
In the best-case scenario, a vaccine could be approved on an emergency basis by the end of December. But there are still big concerns about how many people would actually have access to such a vaccine by then and how many people would be willing to take it if they did. To his credit, President-elect Biden was clear about that in his statement regarding the Pfizer results, stating that “the end of the battle against covid-19 is still months away” and that Americans would need to adhere to measures like mask-wearing and physical distancing well into next year.
It’s not just a matter of America being bad at handling the pandemic. Much of Europe is facing its own second wave, and, globally, daily reported deaths are reaching levels surpassing the deadliest days seen earlier this year (in total, close to 1.3 million people worldwide have died so far). The virus has throughly routed much of the world, and only a few countries have been able to keep it at bay this entire time.
I know this is all very doomer, and I wish it weren’t so. But all natural disasters eventually end, covid-19 being no exception, and trying to weather the storm as best as we can until then is still valuable. The fewer people infected by the coronavirus because people are wearing masks and avoiding risky social situations, the fewer who will end up in the hospital and eventually die this winter. Every second, minute, and day of vigilance helps, especially considering that a vaccine is within sight.
But it’s also important to know the reality of the situation right now. There’s going to be a lot more pain and death coming before this pandemic is through with us. And as is often the case, it’s the most vulnerable who will pay the highest price.