In April, the National Academies of Sciences warned Americans not to get our hopes up too high: “Given that countries currently in ‘summer’ climates, such as Australia and Iran, are experiencing rapid virus spread, a decrease in cases with increases in humidity and temperature elsewhere should not be assumed.”
It is now July, and the United States is seeing between 50,000 and 60,000 new infections a day. Whatever mitigating effect that heat and humidity have, it is probably more than offset by people spending time indoors, with the virus blown around air currents by air-conditioning systems.
The very good news is that the daily death toll is going down. Some unfortunate editor over at Bloomberg chose to write the headline, “A Lower Covid-19 Death Rate Is Nothing to Celebrate.” Er, yes it is!
But once you account for the weekday–weekend pattern, that daily death toll’s decline is slow and steady. Just about every weekend, the death toll figure drops significantly, and someone out there thinks it’s a sign that the country has turned a corner. And then the deaths that didn’t get reported or tabulated over the weekend get added to the totals of the beginning of the week, and the numbers jump again.
This past week or so offered a good example. For the week that ended June and began July, the country suffered 727 deaths Tuesday and declined a bit each day, hitting 626 Friday. On Independence Day, the United States reported just 265 new deaths, and only 262 on July 5! And then Monday’s total was only 378 . . . leading some to believe that the daily number of deaths had dropped precipitously. But then yesterday the total jumped up to 993, the highest number since June 10.
More ominously, the four states that reported the most deaths yesterday were among those that are currently experiencing spikes in the number of cases — California, Arizona, Texas, and Florida. Yes, it is likely that most of those being infected in the current waves are younger and healthier and have better chances at survival. But not all the folks infected in these waves are young and healthy, and eventually a spike in new cases will result in at least a modest increase in deaths.
(Intriguingly, outside the top four, we find a lot of states outside the sun belt in that top fifteen: New Jersey, Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Virginia, New York. The northeast and Rust Belt may not be getting hit quite as hard as the south and west, but they’re not out of the woods yet.)
Dr. Anthony Fauci knows what he’s talking about when he says, “it’s a false narrative to take comfort in a lower rate of death” and “there’s so many other things that are dangerous and bad about the virus. Don’t get into false complacency.” Yes, it is better that people survive with lingering health issues than if they die, but that’s a really low bar to clear. All of us dread our loved ones beating the virus but being forced to live with chronic shortness of breath, dizziness, headaches, fatigue, blood clots, inflamed heart muscle, and delirium.
We are not only not out of the woods, we’re in a deep and dark thicket within the woods. We may be seeing so many cases that contact tracing can’t work — the virus is spreading faster than contacts can be identified, contacted, and warned. And Admiral Brett P. Giroir, the assistant secretary of Health and Human Services, is acknowledging, “we cannot test our way out of this.”
I can hear people out there chanting, “Herd immunity! Herd immunity!” No one knows exactly which percentage of the population has to be infected to have hit herd immunity — for some diseases, it can be as low as 40 percent — but for other diseases, such as measles, we need 95 percent of the population to be immune. Mathematicians from the University of Nottingham and University of Stockholm recently published a study with the relatively optimistic assessment that 43 percent might be enough, if the people who are most social and likely to spread catch it and build up the antibodies the earliest.
Nationally, the average of positive tests over the past week is eight percent. In Arizona, it’s at 26 percent. In Florida, it’s at 18 percent. Even at the lowest thresholds for herd immunity, our worst-hit states probably still have a ways to go.