Public health experts are sounding the alarm about the trajectory of the pandemic in the United States as the coronavirus spreads largely unabated and officials muse aloud about the possibility of fresh lockdowns.
The experts use different language to underscore the situation’s urgency: Former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Tom Frieden said the nation is experiencing a “dangerous time.” CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Sanjay Gupta called the crisis a “humanitarian disaster.” Epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, who was recently named to President-elect Joe Biden’s coronavirus task force, described the situation bluntly as “COVID-hell.”
Their warnings come amid widespread fatigue with restrictions, even as the virus is nowhere near finished rampaging across the country. While several states implemented new mitigation measures this week, many people have been letting down their guards or, in some cases, vowing outright to ignore the rules.
Fourteen states, mostly in the Midwest, had reported record numbers of hospitalizations by midday Thursday as the seven-day average number of cases reached highs in 23 states, from Nevada to Maryland, according to data tracked by The Washington Post. Hospital officials predicted that they could soon face excruciating decisions about how to prioritize care as they run short on beds and staff.
"Our hospitals are full," Megan Ranney, an emergency medicine professor at Brown University, said in an interview. "Our workers are getting sick. And it is simply overwhelming the system."
The rapid rise in hospitalizations could foreshadow a long period of rising deaths, said Scott Gottlieb, former director of the Food and Drug Administration. Although improvements in care have pushed the mortality rate below 1% in the United States, 1,549 people died of the virus Wednesday, the highest toll since April.
The distribution of hospitalizations across the country means it will be hard for health-care workers from one region of the country to serve as backup in another area, Gottlieb wrote on Twitter. The only slightly reassuring news is that most hospitals have not entered true crisis mode, he said Thursday on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”
"Every hospital system is a little pressed right now," Gottlieb said. "There's only a handful that are really overwhelmed: Wisconsin, parts of Texas, Utah, South and North Dakota."
But the trends suggest that that could change. Osterholm said ballooning numbers of infections nationwide mean more hospitals could soon look like those in El Paso, Texas, where health-care workers are bringing in mobile morgues and airlifting patients to other cities.
"We have to tell the story of what's coming; people don't want to hear that El Paso isn't an isolated event," he told Yahoo Finance on Thursday. "It will become the norm."
Frieden tweeted that the United States has entered "the exponential phase" of virus spread and that the situation will worsen significantly before it improves. But he emphasized that policy decisions have an impact, and throwing in the towel is the wrong solution.
"Not all of the US is experiencing the same rate of COVID spread - some states are doing much better than others," he wrote. "For example, South Dakota (the state with the highest rate) has 100 times more spread than Vermont right now."
Individual decisions also make a difference, Gottlieb said, especially as people prepare to travel and visit people outside their household for Thanksgiving. The transmission of the virus tracks closely with people's movement in their communities.
"If people on the whole just go to the store one less time a week, you could substantially reduce spread," Gottlieb said on "Squawk Box."
The lack of that kind of self-sacrifice is one factor that Ranney said she believes is contributing to the virus surging to a far greater extent than it did in the spring. New rules from local and state governments, such as curfews, have been relatively mild compared to the widespread shutdowns of March and April.
The holiday season, meanwhile, is a looming danger that Ranney expects will lead to a "deadly" spike in infections. The virus's prevalence across the country means that this is the worst time for people to increase their risk of transmission by attending family-centric celebrations, she said.
The likelihood that there will be an easily available vaccine next year is the light at the end of the tunnel. But in the meantime, Ranney said people need to fight the urge to pretend that life is normal and instead seek ways to socialize more safely - outdoors, at a distance and while wearing masks.
“A vaccine is coming. This is not forever,” she said. “But right now, we’ve got to stop this chain of transmission.”