The Memo: COVID-19 frustrations rise alongside delta surge, school reopenings

A nation exhausted by 18 months of the pandemic is trying to figure out what lies ahead.

Frustratingly, there may not be a nationwide answer.

The latest figures show a flattening of new COVID-19 cases in some of the states that have been worst hit by the delta variant. But other states are suffering explosive rises.

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The average number of new cases has rocketed in West Virginia, for example, where average daily infections were up 252 percent in the 14 days to Sunday, according to New York Times data.

The daily average for infections has shot up 77 percent in Ohio, 72 percent in Indiana and 67 percent in Kentucky, the home state of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellRepublicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves Graham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks Five reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season MORE (R).

McConnell, a polio survivor, has been more vigorous than many others in his party in urging vaccinations.

At the same time, new cases have fallen by 27 percent in Louisiana and 7 percent in Mississippi, two of the states that had been worst affected by the recent spike.

Three other states that had been hard-hit are seeing increases, but at a slower rate than before. Daily cases in Florida and Texas have each increased by 5 percent over the last 14 days, and by 3 percent in Alabama.

“That rise and fall will happen at different times and in different places” over the coming months, said Neil Sehgal, an assistant professor of health policy and management at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.

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“It’s a relief anytime we see cases decline somewhere that has really been ravaged by COVID. At the same time, positive news in one part of the county doesn’t necessarily translate nationally.”

The question of what comes next is particularly pertinent right now.

Schools across the nation are returning to in-person learning for the first time since the pandemic began. In the process, they are lifting an emotional and logistical burden from parents and facilitating a return to the full-time workforce for many.

But a continued rise in COVID-19 cases could endanger that process.

New figures show COVID-19-related hospitalizations of people under 18 at their highest since the pandemic began, though such cases remain very rare overall.

The more widespread danger could be school years marked by frequent and unpredictable disruptions. On Monday, for example, a school district near Houston announced a COVID-19-related weeklong shutdown just two weeks into the academic year.

Kavita Patel, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution and a practicing physician, said “how schools factor into this” is one of the crucial unknowns. One possibility, she suggested, was that “we could see an incredible uptick in cases but no increase in hospitalizations.”

Other public health experts sound an even more ominous tone, given that children under 12 remain ineligible for vaccination.

“No one would consider it appropriate to put 20 or 30 unvaccinated adults in a room all day, with poor ventilation and have them sit there for hours at a time in the middle of the delta surge. Why do we think we should do this with children?” said Leana Wen, a practicing physician and a former Baltimore health commissioner. “It is something I really worry about.”

Overall, the U.S. has seen a 20 percent rise in new cases of COVID-19 over the last two weeks, according to the New York Times data.

Average daily hospitalizations are more than 100,000, their highest level in eight months. Around 1,300 Americans are dying every day from COVID-19. The virus has now claimed around 637,000 lives in the U.S., and an estimated 4.5 million around the world.

The trajectory of what comes next will decide the fate of many Americans’ lives. It will also have a central bearing on how President BidenJoe BidenGOP eyes booting Democrats from seats if House flips Five House members meet with Taiwanese president despite Chinese objections Sunday shows preview: New COVID-19 variant emerges; supply chain issues and inflation persist MORE and a number of other prominent politicians are viewed by the public.

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Biden, having received high marks from voters for his handling of the pandemic in his early months in office, has seen his ratings slide into more ambivalent territory. An NBC News poll earlier this month showed 53 percent approval for Biden’s approach to COVID-19 — a sharp decline from 69 percent in April.

Some conservative governors, notably Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisA sad reality: In a season of giving, most will ignore America's poor Walt Disney World pauses vaccine mandate after DeSantis signs new legislation Fauci overwhelmed by calls after journal published mistake over beagle experiments MORE (R) and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), have become leading foils of Biden, each issuing anti-mask mandate executive orders.

DeSantis and Abbott are considered potential candidates for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. They also face gubernatorial reelection battles next year.

The political battle took a new turn Monday, when the Department of Education opened civil rights investigations into five states that have imposed restrictions on mask mandates in schools.

The investigation is premised on the possibility that those states could have infringed upon the rights of students who are at higher risk because of underlying conditions.

A few days earlier, a Florida judge ruled that the state could not levy penalties against school districts that introduced mask mandates.

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But as those battles play out, one truth remains: The future path of the virus is almost impossible to chart with confidence.

“Another thing we have learned in the pandemic is that prognostication is difficult and we almost certainly are going to be wrong,” said Wen.

“If we are able to get vaccinations up and there are mitigation measures put in place, including in schools, we could get past the surge. But what if there is a new variant that develops that is even more contagious and even more deadly?”


The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.