Winter is coming: Why America’s window of opportunity to beat back coronavirus is closing

The good news: The United States has a window of opportunity to beat back Covid-19 before things get much, much worse.

The bad news: That window is rapidly closing. And the country seems unwilling or unable to seize the moment.

Winter is coming. Winter means cold and flu season, which is all but sure to complicate the task of figuring out who is sick with Covid-19 and who is suffering from a less threatening respiratory tract infection. It also means that cherished outdoor freedoms that link us to pre-Covid life — pop-up restaurant patios, picnics in parks, trips to the beach — will soon be out of reach, at least in northern parts of the country.

Unless Americans use the dwindling weeks between now and the onset of “indoor weather” to tamp down transmission in the country, this winter could be Dickensianly bleak, public health experts warn.

“I think November, December, January, February are going to be tough months in this country without a vaccine,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

It is possible, of course, that some vaccines could be approved by then, thanks to historically rapid scientific work. But there is little prospect that vast numbers of Americans will be vaccinated in time to forestall the grim winter Osterholm and others foresee.

Human coronaviruses, the distant cold-causing cousins of the virus that causes Covid-19, circulate year-round. Now is typically the low season for transmission. But in this summer of America’s failed Covid-19 response, the SARS-CoV-2 virus is widespread across the country, and pandemic-weary Americans seem more interested in resuming pre-Covid lifestyles than in suppressing the virus to the point where schools can be reopened, and stay open, and restaurants, movie theaters, and gyms can function with some restrictions.

“We should be aiming for no transmission before we open the schools and we put kids in harm’s way — kids and teachers and their caregivers. And so, if that means no gym, no movie theaters, so be it,” said Caroline Buckee, associate director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“We seem to be choosing leisure activities now over children’s safety in a month’s time. And I cannot understand that tradeoff.”

While many countries managed to suppress spread of SARS-CoV-2, the United States has failed miserably. Countries in Europe and Asia are worrying about a second wave. Here, the first wave rages on, engulfing rural as well as urban parts of the country. Though there’s been a slight decline in cases in the past couple of weeks, more than 50,000 Americans a day are being diagnosed with Covid-19. And those are just the confirmed cases.

To put that in perspective, at this rate the U.S. is racking up more cases in a week than Britain has accumulated since the start of the pandemic.

Public health officials had hoped transmission of the virus would abate with the warm temperatures of summer and the tendency — heightened this year — of people to take their recreational activities outdoors. Experts do believe people are less likely to transmit the virus outside, especially if they are wearing face coverings and keeping a safe distance apart.

But in some places, people have been throwing Covid cautions to the wind, flouting public health orders in the process. Kristen Ehresmann, director of infectious disease epidemiology, prevention, and control for the Minnesota Department of Health, points to a large, three-day rodeo that was held recently in her state. Organizers knew they were supposed to limit the number of attendees to 250 but refused; thousands attended. In Sturgis, S.D., an estimated quarter of a million motorcyclists were expected to descend on the city this past weekend for an annual rally that spans 10 days.

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Source: Stat News