Virtually every state in the union is trending in the wrong direction in the pandemic, setting grim records by the day as Americans prepare to spend a winter battling a virus that thrives indoors.
At least five states ― Alaska, Missouri, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Wyoming ― set records for COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
Simultaneously, at least five states — Colorado, Illinois, Montana, Ohio and Wyoming — surpassed single-day new caseload records Tuesday. (Wyoming appeared on both superlative lists.) Several other states, such as Pennsylvania, set records for new cases on Monday.
The U.S. as a whole also hit a new single-day high on Tuesday, recording more than 136,000 new cases and marking the seventh day in a row where new cases surpassed 100,000.
According to the COVID Tracking Project, which is affiliated with The Atlantic, around 62,000 Americans are currently lying in hospital beds fighting off the worst symptoms of COVID-19, which can leave some patients traumatized even after they make a recovery. Hospital beds in some places, particularly in the center of the country, are rapidly becoming scarce resources.
These bleak statistics cannot be set aside in light of this week’s good vaccine news, either. Although Pfizer announced that the coronavirus vaccine it has been developing is showing very positive signs of success ― initial data from the company showed the vaccine provided 90% efficacy ― the country is still a long way away from widespread vaccination.
The U.S. may begin to vaccinate those at most risk of infection, including many health care workers, by the end of December, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top expert on infectious diseases. But for the average American without serious preexisting conditions, the vaccine likely will not be available until April.
Doctors are also getting better at treating the virus, having learned lessons during the first wave about how it tears through the human body. How the virus may affect recovered patients over the long term, though, is much more uncertain.
With more than 10 million confirmed COVID-19 patients since the start of the pandemic, the U.S. continues to lead the world in coronavirus spread by significant amount ― and experts have repeatedly sought to warn the public that the crisis will get worse before it gets better.
One of President-elect Joe Biden’s newly appointed pandemic advisers, Michael Osterholm, had a sobering message to share earlier this week on CNBC, where he said, “What America has to understand is that we are about to enter COVID hell.”
Osterholm, who is also director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, went on to explain that he was simply being realistic.
“This is not to scare people out of their wits. This is to scare people into their wits to understand that, because we still have control,” he said.
Biden himself has repeatedly emphasized mask use and social distancing measures in the handful of national addresses he has made since being declared the winner of the 2020 election on Saturday.
Some local leaders are taking heed of the warnings. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) announced a 10 p.m. curfew for bars and restaurants this week as cases surge across the heartland state. And after spending days telling New York state residents that the former hotspot may be headed for a “second wave” of COVID-19, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) followed suit, telling bars and restaurants they must close by 10 p.m. and capping indoor gatherings at 10 people. A similar curfew is set to go into effect in Connecticut and New Jersey.
In California, nearly a dozen counties have already been ordered by the state’s secretary of health, Dr. Mark Ghaly, to reinstate more restrictive measures to slow the spread of illness, including banning movie theater operations. And on Wednesday evening, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) is expected to address the rampant spread of infections across his state and potentially introduce new mandates.
Yet leaders in other places are holding off on new restrictions. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) issued an executive order Wednesday that advises residents to stay home but falls short of a new mandate.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) said this week that his state is seeing the worst surge in virus spread since the start of the crisis in March, but he has yet to implement stricter rules. (Illinois reported a record 12,623 new cases Tuesday.) Officials in St. Louis County, Missouri ― a state where cases have been rising steeply for weeks ― have also warned that tighter restrictions may become necessary but have not announced them just yet.
Similarly, Texas ― which became the first state to surpass 1 million infections this week ― has also not announced new rules, although local health officials say the surge is not surprising given residents’ uneven adherence to local and federal guidelines.
North Dakota, however, may offer the most dire picture of what could happen if areas that are already stretching their hospitals thin fail to slow the spread. The state’s Republican governor, Doug Burgum, announced Monday that health care workers may still come to work in COVID-19 units even if they have the virus, so long as they are asymptomatic, owing to alarming staffing shortages.
Early in the pandemic, states that were hard-hit by the virus, such as New York and New Jersey, benefitted from low ― or nonexistent ― case counts across much of the country and were able to welcome doctors from other places to help tend to patients. But such resources are likely to be heavily strained if all 50 states are facing rapidly rising caseloads at the same time.