In Hawaii, indoor social gatherings are capped at 10 people again. In New Orleans, drive-thru Covid-19 testing sites are back. And in Florida, a record number of people are currently hospitalized with the coronavirus.
As the hypertransmissible delta variant spreads through the United States, driving new daily Covid-19 cases to a six-month high, many parts of the country are experiencing déjà vu reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic — something experts say could have been avoided.
“This entire surge was completely preventable,” said Tener Goodwin Veenema, a professor and visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, adding that had more people chosen to get vaccinated as soon as they were eligible, it would have slowed down the spread of the virus.
“We definitely have taken a huge step backward,” she added. “If anything, this fourth surge just provides more compelling evidence to universally implement the public health measures that we know will stop the spread of the pandemic.”
The explosive rise in coronavirus case counts and hospitalizations, mostly in unvaccinated people, has prompted action in a number of states.
In Oregon on Tuesday, Gov. Kate Brown announced she would be reinstating the state’s indoor mask mandate for everyone, regardless of vaccination status. Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana, which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, made the same decision last week as hospitals there filled up. Both governors are Democrats.
But elsewhere, elected officials are taking a different approach.
In Florida, intensive care units are so overwhelmed that the federal government this week shipped hundreds of ventilators from its stockpile to the state, according to a Department of Health and Human Services official. Nonetheless, Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has not tweaked the lax style toward the coronavirus that he has embraced since the start of the pandemic.
With many schools set to start at full capacity in Florida this week, DeSantis threatened to withhold funds from school leaders who defied his ban on mask mandates — a move excoriated by public health experts.
“We’re making things worse by taking stances against mitigation measures that would have allowed us to demonstrate some sense of normal,” said Mercedes Carnethon, vice chair of preventive medicine at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
Without masks in Florida schools, she said, the chances of the coronavirus spreading in classrooms is much higher, especially given that the Covid-19 vaccine is still only available to children ages 12 and up. She predicted that DeSantis’ plan would lead to inevitable classroom closures that masks might have prevented.
“I’m truly confounded by what his rationale is for disallowing masks at schools,” Carnethon added. “Is it a strong sense of denial that we are in the midst of a dangerous pandemic? It’s like dealing with a 2-year-old who puts their hands over their eyes when they’re playing hide-and-seek. They think because they can’t see you, you can’t see them.”
How to avoid a worst-case scenario
The experts said they anticipated that this wave of Covid-19 cases will get worse before it gets better. So will everything that has come with the surge, they said — such as the return of long lines at mass testing sites in places like Massachusetts, the number of open intensive care unit beds dwindling down to single digits in places like Arkansas and hard-hit states such as Texas begging for travel nurses to help with the swell in hospitalizations there.
But, they said, if everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated does so, that will help dramatically.
“It’s just painful to watch someone refuse to get something that would save their life,” Goodwin Veenema said.
In a worst-case scenario, if already stretched health care systems continue to fill up with patients, “we may have to start talking about Zoom happy hours with our friends, and canceling Thanksgiving and Christmas,” said Michael LeVasseur, an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the Dornsife School of Public Health at Drexel University.
He urged people to exercise prudence to avoid returning to that point.
“Do you really need to go to your sister’s aunt’s friend’s cat’s birthday party?” LeVasseur said. “Wear a mask. Stay home if you’re sick or if you were exposed. Everything we’ve been saying, just copy and paste.”