MINNEAPOLIS (AP) – Decrease in COVID-19 Cases in the United States Over the past few weeks it has brought some relief to overwhelmed hospitals, but administrators are bracing for another possible increase as cold weather drives people indoors.
Health experts say the fourth wave of the pandemic has peaked in the United States, particularly in the Deep South, where hospitals were stretched to the limit weeks ago. But many northern states are still struggling with the increase in cases, and what lies ahead for winter is much less clear.
The unknowns include how flu season can strain Hospital staff already exhausted and if those who have refused to be vaccinated will change their minds.
An estimated 70 million eligible Americans remain unvaccinated, providing fuelwood for the highly contagious delta variant.
“If you are not vaccinated or have protection against a natural infection, this virus will find you,” warned Mike Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
Nationwide, the number of people now in the hospital with COVID-19 has dropped to around 75,000 from more than 93,000 in early September. New cases are down by about 112,000 a day on average, a drop of about a third in the past two and a half weeks.
Deaths also appear to be declining, averaging around 1,900 a day compared to more than 2,000 about a week ago, although the United States closed Friday with the heartbreaking milestone of 700,000 deaths overall since the pandemic began.
The decline in the summer surge has been attributed to increased use of masks and more people getting vaccinated. The decrease in the number of cases could also be because the virus has spread through susceptible people and has run out of fuel in some places.
In another promising development, Merck said on Friday its experimental pill for people sick with COVID-19 halved hospitalizations and deaths. If cleared from regulators, it will be the first pill to treat COVID-19 and an important and easy-to-use new weapon in the arsenal against the pandemic.
All treatments now licensed in the US against coronavirus require an IV or injection.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease specialist, warned Friday that some may see the encouraging trends as a reason to remain unvaccinated.
“It’s good news that we’re starting to see the curves” coming down, he said. “That is not an excuse to get away from the problem of the need to get vaccinated.”
Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, began to see an increase in hospitalizations for COVID-19 in mid-July, and by the first week of August, the site was over capacity. He stopped elective surgeries and brought in military doctors and nurses to help care for patients.
With the cases now down, the military team is scheduled to depart in late October.
Still, the hospital’s medical director, Dr. Catherine O’Neal, said the rate of hospitalizations is not dropping as fast as cases in the community because the delta variant is affecting more otherwise healthy young people and they live much longer in the intensive care unit on ventilators.
“It creates a lot of ICU patients who don’t move anywhere,” he said. And many of the patients don’t go home at all. In recent weeks, the hospital saw several days with more than five deaths a day from COVID-19, including a day in which there were 10 deaths.
“We lost another father in his 40s just a few days ago,” O’Neal said. “It keeps happening. And that’s the tragedy of COVID. “
As for where the outbreak goes from here, “I have to tell you that my crystal ball has been broken several times in the last two years,” he said. But he added that the hospital should be prepared for another increase in late November, as the flu season also increases.
Dr. Sandra Kemmerly, medical director of the hospital quality system at Ochsner Health in Louisiana, said this fourth increase in the pandemic has been more difficult. “It’s frustrating that people die of vaccine-preventable diseases,” he said.
At the peak of this most recent wave, Ochsner hospitals had 1,074 COVID-19 patients on August 9. That had been down to 208 as of Thursday.
Other hospitals are also seeing declines. The University of Mississippi Medical Center had 146 hospitalized COVID-19 patients in mid-August. That dropped to 39 on Friday. Lexington Medical Center in West Columbia, South Carolina, was over 190 in early September, but just 49 on Friday.
But Kemmerly doesn’t expect the decline to last. “I hope to see more hospitalizations due to COVID,” he said.
Like many other health professionals, Natalie Dean, professor of biostatistics at Emory University, has a cautious view of winter.
It’s unclear if the coronavirus will adopt the seasonal pattern of flu, with predictable spikes in the winter when people flock indoors for the holidays. Simply because of the size and diversity of the nation, there will be places that will have outbreaks and waves, he said.
Furthermore, the uncertainties of human behavior complicate the picture. People react to risk by taking precautions, which slows down viral transmission. Then, feeling more secure, people mix more freely, causing a new wave of contagion.
“Infectious disease models are different from weather models,” Dean said. “A hurricane does not change its course from what the model says.”
An influential model, from the University of Washington, projects that new cases will rise again this fall, but vaccine protection and infection-induced immunity will prevent the virus from taking as many lives as it did last winter.
Still, the model predicts that about 90,000 more Americans will die on January 1 for a total death toll of 788,000 by that date. The model estimates that about half of those deaths could be prevented if almost everyone wore masks in public.
“The use of masks is already going in the wrong direction,” said Ali Mokdad, professor of health metrics sciences at the university. “We need to make sure we are ready for winter because our hospitals are exhausted.”
Johnson reported from Washington state. Associated Press writer Zeke Miller contributed from Washington, DC