COVID-19 surge prompts warnings that anticipated ‘third wave’ is now here

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COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations are increasing again with no sign of stopping, sparking fears that the fall and winter wave experts had warned about all year is already here. 

Over the past week, according to The New York Times COVID-19 tracker, the U.S. has confirmed an average of 54,000 new cases per day, a 25 percent increase compared to two weeks ago. The surge cannot solely be explained by an increase in testing.

Nineteen states, including North Dakota, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Kansas and Indiana, are seeing record-high case numbers in their areas, according to the tracker. 

States that have seemingly gained control of the pandemic in recent months, such as Florida, New York, New Jersey, Arizona and others, are also seeing increases. 

“We’ve been talking about the fall surge for a long time now. I think that is the beginning of that reality,” Scott Gottlieb, Trump’s former Food and Drug commissioner, told CNBC on Friday. 

Gottlieb added that Europe, which is seeing a daily average of 100,000 new COVID-19 cases — higher than at any other time during the pandemic — is probably about two or three weeks ahead of the U.S.

“I think we’re in for a difficult fall and winter,” Gottlieb said. 

Hospitalizations are also beginning to increase, with Wisconsin building a field hospital on the state park fairground.

Deaths remain flat at about 700 per day in the U.S., but that number typically lags behind hospitalizations, which lag behind case increases, meaning the U.S. could see more fatalities reported in the coming weeks. 

The silver lining, Gottlieb said, is the death rate will likely be “substantially less” than it was in the spring and summer outbreaks because of improved therapies and techniques that have saved people’s lives.

Experts generally say there have been two “surges” of COVID-19 in the U.S.

The first surge hit the northeast in the spring, and the second hit the south over the summer, peaking at about 73,000 cases per day in July — the highest levels so far recorded in the pandemic in the U.S.  Afterward, new cases steadily dropped, before beginning a climb upwards in September. Now the U.S. is poised to surpass the previous daily high in new cases, experts say.

“We’re actually almost already back at the peak that we saw nationally in the summer,” said Michael Mina, assistant professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chain School of Public Health. 

“We’re almost back at that same level and I don’t believe that we’re anywhere close to that rise abating. … We’re seeing [cases] go up and in Europe and in many of those places, cases really did get down fairly low numbers first and now they’re skyrocketing again in many places. We’re seeing it in the US, and we’re seeing in other places as well and so we’re pretty much there and I think we have a long winter ahead.”

Experts have warned for months of a surge in cases in the colder months that would likely rival the battering by the coronavirus the U.S. has already endured this year. 

Respiratory viruses like the flu and common cold tend to spread more easily in colder, dryer climates, leading experts to believe it will be the same for COVID-19.  

“You can’t enter into the cooler months of the fall and the cold months of the winter with a high community infection baseline,” Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, said in a webinar Friday at Johns Hopkins University. 

“We’re going to start doing a lot of things indoors, rather than outdoors, and that’s when you have to be particularly careful about the spread of a respiratory borne disease,” he added. 

Twenty-seven states, mostly in the South, Midwest and Mountain states, have “uncontrolled spread” of COVID-19, according to the COVID Exit Strategy, a nonprofit public health group that tracks metrics of the pandemic, including case numbers and test positivity rates.

Another 18 states are “trending poorly,” including states on the East and West coasts, and Texas and Louisiana. Only two states — Maine and Vermont — are “trending better,” with declining cases and a smaller proportion of tests coming back positive.

The percent of tests coming back positive is a key indicator of where COVID-19 is spreading, experts say. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) states a test positivity rate of 5 percent or lower is a sign an area has the virus well-controlled.

But 33 states are above that recommendation, according to Johns Hopkins University.

The U.S. is nearing 8 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and 220,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s ensemble forecast projects an additional 9,000 to 20,000 deaths by Nov. 7. 

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