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'We are still in a pandemic': In some states, summer months may not provide a hoped-for lull

The virus "does what it's supposed to do — find a host and replicate," one expert said.
Image: An automobile sign sends a positive message in the fight against coronavirus in Kingman, Ariz., on May 24, 2020.
An automobile sign sends a positive message in the fight against coronavirus in Kingman, Ariz., on May 24, 2020.Mario Tama / Getty Images file

Businesses are slowly reopening. "Six feet apart" seems to be shrinking in distance. Face coverings are optional in most places.

Some may believe the COVID-19 pandemic is ending in the United States, but in truth, "we are still in a pandemic," according to Dr. Jay Butler, head of the COVID-19 response at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Many people in the U.S. remain vulnerable to the disease, and the pandemic will continue as long as there's a readily transmissible virus and a population with little or no immunity to it, Butler told NBC News.

While the nation's cases overall have flattened, they are not yet declining — 10,000 to 20,000 new cases of the coronavirus are reported every day in states and U.S. territories.

In some states, new daily cases are rising. In the past week, eight states — Vermont, Missouri, Michigan, Hawaii, Arizona, New Mexico, Massachusetts and Florida — and Puerto Rico have reported at least a 50 percent increase in COVID-19 cases from the previous week.

It's unclear whether all of the rising numbers reflect true increases in cases. Some states, such as Michigan, have recently started adding probable cases dating back to April to the recent COVID-19 tally, suggesting a larger spike than what appears to have occurred in reality.

But in some places like Arizona, which allowed businesses to reopen in mid-May, the real rise in cases worries experts.

Banner Health, the state's largest health care system, has reported that since May 15, the number of COVID-19 patients on ventilators has quadrupled.

"This trend is concerning to us," the hospital system wrote in a tweet Monday.

Dr. Matthew Heinz, an internist with Tucson Medical Center in Arizona, has witnessed the rise in COVID-19 cases following a lull.

"Our case numbers were trending down in terms of hospitalizations," Heinz said. Within the past week, though, he and his colleagues have noticed an uptick in confirmed and in probable cases of the coronavirus, at least in that hospital.

Two recent confirmed COVID-19 admissions were among ride-share drivers — one in his mid-twenties, and the other in his 50s.

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It's unclear where those drivers contracted the virus, but Heinz said he was concerned they may have, in turn, spread COVID-19 to unsuspecting riders.

The Arizona Department of Health Services reports that nearly a quarter of cases are among people of Hispanic or Latino ethnicity. Just over 20 percent of cases involve whites. Most COVID-19 cases in the state have been reported among people in their 20s, 30s and early 40s. However, patients over age 65 are most likely to be hospitalized.

Heinz said he sees a clear link between Arizona's reopening of businesses in mid-May to the current rise in coronavirus cases in that state.

"If you count out 10 to 14 days, approximately, for people who started mingling, going to work, going to bars and restaurants again," he said, "if they got the virus, it took another 5, 6, 7 days to start developing symptoms to the point to the severity level that you might need medical care go to a hospital."

About a month after relaxing restrictions, the virus is once again taking hold in Arizona, Heinz said.

"It's easy to predict what the virus is going to do. It loves us. It does what it's supposed to do — find a host and replicate," he said. "It does it really well, unfortunately."

Summer spread

Meanwhile, many public health experts predict recent large public gatherings, whether to protest or party, will result in an influx of cases.

"We will see a spike. It's just a question of how large that spike is," Dr. Leana Wen, a former health commissioner for Baltimore, said.

As of June 9, more than 7 million cases of COVID-19 have been diagnosed worldwide. Monday, the World Health Organization said that on nine of the past 10 days, more than 100,000 new cases had been reported globally, with a record daily high of 136,000 new cases reported Sunday. These figures suggest the virus's transmission is not slowing in the summer months.

"We're out of the normal respiratory virus season," Butler, of the CDC, said. But "this being a pandemic virus, we have to be ready for the fact that transmission may increase again, even during the summer."

In the U.S., cases are nearing 2 million. But that number is just the "tip of an iceberg," he said, adding that many people who are infected never receive an official diagnosis.

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