People are desperate to resume normal activities after a year of pandemic restrictions. Those who have been vaccinated are ready to invite friends over for dinner or hop on airplanes and visit relatives. Many people look at statistics showing declining hospitalizations and deaths and assume the coast is clear. But COVID cases are rising in many states and much of Europe. They are skyrocketing in India right now. What does the future hold?
The Situation in India:
India now has the unenviable distinction of leading the world in new COVID cases. More than 100,000 infections a day are being identified. The virus is spreading to all age groups at an alarming rate.
As in many parts of the US, people in India have grown weary of restrictions and are starting to circulate more freely. Weddings that were postponed last year are now going forward. Festivals, cricket matches and election rallies are turning into super spreader events. Vaccines are being administered, but they are rolling out too slowly to protect a sizable proportion of the population at this time.
The Short-Memory Phenomenon:
After a year of nonstop coronavirus news, many people are fed up. They just want to get back to some semblance of normalcy. While many colleges and universities did not schedule spring break this year, others did, and lots of students headed for beaches.
If you watched TV news last month, you may have seen a lot of mask-less young people frolicking on beaches, hanging out in bars and generally celebrating the end of COVID. Were they jumping the gun?
The CDC warns that if viral variants evade the vaccines, increased travel and large gatherings could trigger a coronavirus resurgence. Some infectious disease experts have described the current situation as a race between the virus variants and the vaccines. Many people do not want to hear that message. They just want to resume their normal lives.
COVID Cases Are on a Roller Coaster:
If you have looked at any of the coronavirus graphs, you have seen what looks a bit like a mountain range. The first “hill” showed up in late March and April of 2020. There was a slight decline or plateau in May and June and then a small “mountain” in July and August with a dip in COVID cases in September.
By November, though, we were back in the high coronavirus mountains. We hit peaks of COVID cases in November, December and January. By February, though, cases were declining steeply.
That’s when a lot of folks began letting down their guard. By March, states like Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and West Virginia had loosened restrictions such as mask mandates or limits on restaurants. Florida and Wyoming allowed normal operations and full capacity in bars and restaurants.
Some States are Down—Others are Up:
We now have a patchwork of COVID cases across the country. South Carolina, North Carolina, Texas, Utah and Virginia look pretty good these days. COVID cases are declining. But Michigan is in big trouble. Along with Alabama, Delaware, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island and West Virginia have seen COVID cases going up.
Perhaps more discouraging, the rate of the decline in new cases across the US has slowed down. Think of it as a ski slope. At the top it drops off steeply. But as you get closer to the bottom, it becomes increasingly gradual.
That’s not good when it comes to COVID, especially since our pace of vaccinations has continued to increase. We were hoping for a more sustained and continuous drop in COVID cases. Yesterday there were 58,856 new cases, 41,136 people in the hospital and 1,177 deaths attributed to COVID-19. Better for sure, but not not great.
The European Experience:
Overall, COVID cases have been steadily falling in the US since January 8, 2021. Europe, however, has been a mixed bag. Over the last few weeks, COVID cases have been climbing in several countries. Experts are calling this the third wave, although it is breaking unevenly across the continent.
Poland is being hit very hard. Cases have doubled over the last several weeks. Turkey, Kosovo and Serbia are also experiencing high infection rates. France is is finally seeing a decline in new cases, though it is still quite high. It is straining the hospital system.
Even Norway, which exercised caution throughout the winter, had a third wave last month and tightened its lockdown (Views and News from Norway, March 17, 2021). Bent Høie is Norway’s health minister.
In March, he stated:
“The infection situation in Norway is unstable, and in recent weeks the infection numbers have risen. We are concerned about the consequences if many travel and meet other people at Easter.
“We are now setting records which none of us wanted to set and we are into a third wave.”
This month, the per capita case count in Norway has dropped, so it is below the US and Canada and level with Belarus. The variant B.1.1.7 from Britain has spread into Norway and is now the dominant form of the coronavirus there.
Sweden is still being slammed. COVID cases are up, nearly rivaling Poland. The death rate is much higher in Sweden than in its Nordic neighbors.
What’s Going on in the UK?
Compared to many other European countries, the United Kingdom is doing well. The country experienced a severe second wave in January that strained the health service there. That was attributed to the B.1.1.7 variant. But the UK has experienced a dramatic drop in cases that is quite similar to the US picture.
Experts have been struggling to understand what drives the infection to peak, subside and peak again. Why should the UK see a rapid decline in COVID cases while Germany reports an increase? One medical statistician in the Netherlands described the pandemic as “highly multidimensional,” whatever that means.
The AZ Vaccine Hiccup:
Just to make everything more complicated, several European countries stopped administering the AstraZeneca vaccine due to fears of blood clots. The European Medicines Agency has ruled that the the benefits of AZ shot outweigh the risks, but it has issued a warning regarding the blood clots. A number of countries, including Sweden, Latvia, Germany, France, Italy, Denmark, Spain, Norway and the Netherlands are not administering this vaccine.
Most of us would love to be done with COVID-19. We want to get on with our lives and forget this yearlong nightmare. With vaccinations increasing, that may come true sooner than many people anticipated.
There is a word of caution, though. What we are seeing in Europe is worrisome. Public health authorities are warning that if we let down our guard too soon, we could experience a new surge in cases just like countries in Europe.
Last month saw thousands of young adults gathering at beaches in Florida and partying without masks. When partiers get drunk, they can get wild. Did spring break become a super spreader event? Only time will tell.
There are a number of variants on the move and we keep our fingers crossed that they don’t begin to dodge the available vaccines. We hope that emerging “hot spots” in the US won’t spread.
If vaccines can help us stay a step ahead of the virus, we may all be breathing a sigh of relief by May. There are too many unknowns, though, to make any predictions. Please remain vigilant and stay tuned. We will keep you informed of the latest trends in COVID cases.