Is a spring coronavirus surge inevitable?

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Mike Bebernes
·Senior Editor
·6 min read
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“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

For the first time in months, there are reasons for optimism about the state of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States. The numbers of infections and deaths have dropped substantially from their peaks in the winter months. More than 50 million Americans have received at least one dose of the vaccine so far, and the vaccination rate is expected to increase. All this encouraging news has many experts predicting a return to a reasonable facsimile of normal by the summer.

A lot of those same experts, however, are warning that it’s too early to begin celebrating the end of the pandemic. “We may be done with the virus, but clearly the virus is not done with us,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Friday.

Walensky's concern, echoed by many other infectious disease experts, is that the downward trend in cases will lead state and local governments to lift restrictions prematurely, setting off a new wave of infections in the spring months. This potential spring surge could be accelerated by the spread of more transmissible and deadlier virus variants like the one first identified in the United Kingdom — which researchers believe could become the dominant strain in the U.S. by the end of the March.

Why there’s debate

To some infectious disease experts, a spring surge in the U.S. is all but inevitable. Over the course of the pandemic, the country has shown a pattern of overreacting to positive trends only to see numbers spike a few weeks later. On Tuesday, Texas became the largest state to relax its mask mandate and remove restrictions on businesses. Moves like these are premature and will ultimately bring about an avoidable surge in infections in the period before vaccines turn the tide of the pandemic, many argue. Case numbers are down significantly from the January peak, but they’re still just as high as the worst days of the summer surge.

There is also concern that lawmakers and the broader public haven’t taken into account the risk that new virus variants pose. The safety measures used to reduce the spread of one version of the virus for the past year may prove to be less effective against the more transmissible U.K. variant that’s currently increasing its foothold in the U.S. Other emerging variants from Brazil and South Africa are especially worrying in light of evidence that suggests vaccines may be less effective against them. The more the virus is allowed to spread, the higher the risk that even more dangerous variants evolve, experts say.

Despite these factors, there is still cause for optimism that a spring surge can be avoided, others say. The promise that a true end to the pandemic could be a few months away may empower a large share of the public to continue social distancing and mask wearing even if government mandates are lifted. There is also hope that a push to vaccinate the most vulnerable Americans will help keep the number of severe infections and deaths down even if case numbers rise again. The country is a long way off from reaching herd immunity, but the combined numbers of people who have either been vaccinated or infected previously could mean that the virus has substantially fewer opportunities to spread over the spring than it did during past surges, some epidemiologists say.

What’s next

President Biden on Tuesday predicted the U.S. will have enough vaccine supply to vaccinate all adult Americans by the end of May, two months earlier than previously believed.

Perspectives

The worst is over, but there may still be dark days ahead

“Covid-19 deaths will most likely never rise quite as precipitously as in the past, and the worst may be behind us. But if Americans let down their guard too soon — many states are already lifting restrictions — and if the variants spread in the United States as they have elsewhere, another spike in cases may well arrive in the coming weeks.” — Apoorva Mandavilli, New York Times

If the country stays vigilant, it can avoid a spring surge

“I’m trying to get the public health message out to reach down to find the fortitude to keep that mask on and stay out of congregate settings. I think it will really pay off. If we can get through March by driving these numbers way down in spite of the variants, then we’ll start to see the salutary effects of the vaccine, and then we could be in good shape in May, June, July.” — Infectious disease expert Dr. John Swartzberg to SF Gate

Americans are too complacent about the risks of new variants

“Imagine we’re all sitting on this beautiful sand beach on the Gulf somewhere. Blue skies, temperature of 80 degrees, slight breeze, not a cloud in the sky. And we're trying to tell people, ‘Get ready to evacuate.’ Everyone is saying ‘Why? This makes no sense.’ But we can see that Category 5 hurricane 400 miles south of the beach heading straight towards the beach. And that’s what these variants represent right now.” — Epidemiologist Michael Osterholm to MPR News

The general public has gotten much better about managing virus risk

“While there continue to be people who don’t take the threat of the coronavirus as seriously as they should, and there have been many missteps in both public-health messaging and public-health policy measures throughout the pandemic, there is now more public knowledge and experience dealing with COVID-19 than ever before.” — Chas Danner, New York

Lawmakers are making the exact wrong decisions

“It's like we're trying our best to help the virus rather than stopping it.” — Virologist Theodora Hatziioannou to USA Today

Higher levels of immunity could stunt how large the spring surge can be

“Getting to the full herd immunity that keeps Covid-19 from spreading even if we’re all hanging out together maskless indoors is a daunting and perhaps impossible task. But 40% of the population possessing some immunity should still slow the spread of the disease, and getting to 50% and then 60% should slow it even more.” — Justin Fox, Bloomberg

Steps that curbed the spread of the original variant may not work against the new ones

“A more transmissible virus is like a car that accelerates to a faster speed; to stop it, we must brake sooner, and brake harder. The preventive steps, or braking, that eventually achieved control during the spring wave in the United States may not be sufficient to control the next variant.” — Michael V. Callahan, Jacob Lemieux and Mark C. Poznansky, The Hill

The promise that the pandemic may soon end will help people stay safe a little longer

“Everybody’s burned out and exhausted. They’re hitting their mental breaking points. But we’re in the last stretch of this terrible marathon, and people need hope so they’ll be able to make that last dash to the finish line.” — Virologist Angela Rasmussen to Washington Post

Even if cases spike, deaths may continue to decline

“One bright spot is that hospitalizations and death rates are likely to be lower during any fourth wave than in previous surges because many older people are getting vaccinated.” — Sandi Doughton, Seattle Times

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images