The United States reached its heartbreaking latest pandemic milestone on Friday, eclipsing 700,000 COVID-19 deaths just as the delta variant surge begins to slow and ease overwhelmed hospitals.
It took the United States 3.5 months to go from 600,000 to 700,000 deaths, due to the rampant spread of the variant among unvaccinated Americans. The death toll is greater than the population of Boston.
This step is particularly frustrating for public health leaders and frontline health professionals, as vaccines have been available to all eligible Americans for nearly six months and injections protect overwhelmingly against hospitalizations and death. It is estimated that 70 million eligible Americans remain unvaccinated, providing ignition for the variant.
“You are losing patients to COVID and that shouldn’t happen,” said Debi Delapaz, nurse manager at UF Health Jacksonville, who recalled how the hospital was losing eight patients a day to COVID at one point. 19 during the summer wave. “This is something that shouldn’t happen.”
Despite the increase in the death toll, there are signs of improvement.
Nationally, the number of people currently hospitalized with COVID-19 has fallen to around 75,000, from more than 93,000 in early September. New cases are down to about 112,000 a day on average, down about a third over the past two and a half weeks.
Deaths also appear to be declining, averaging around 1,900 per day compared to over 2,000 about a week ago.
The easing of the summer wave has been attributed to more masks being worn and more people getting vaccinated. The decrease in the number of cases could also be due to the fact that the virus burned susceptible people and ran out of fuel in some places.
In another development, Merck said on Friday that its experimental pill for people with COVID-19 was halving hospitalizations and deaths. If it gets clearance from regulators, it will be the first pill to treat COVID-19 – and an important and easy-to-use new weapon in the pandemic arsenal.
All treatments now authorized in the United States for the coronavirus require an IV or an injection.
Dr Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease specialist, warned on Friday that some might see the encouraging trends as a reason not to get the vaccine.
“It’s good news that we’re starting to see the curves lower,” he said. “This is no excuse to move away from the problem of needing to be vaccinated.”
The unknowns include how the flu season can strain already exhausted hospital staff and whether those who have refused to be vaccinated will change their minds.
“If you are not vaccinated or if you are not protected against natural infections, this virus will find you,” warned Mike Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana began to see an increase in COVID-19-related hospitalizations in mid-July, and by the first week of August, the location was at- beyond its capacity. He put an end to elective surgeries and brought in doctors and nursing sisters to help treat patients.
With the business now over, the military team is due to leave at the end of October.
Still, the hospital’s chief medical officer, Dr Catherine O’Neal, said the rate of hospitalizations is not declining as quickly as cases in the community, as the delta variant affects more young people who are otherwise healthy and live much longer in the intensive care unit on ventilators.
“It creates a lot of intensive care patients who are not going anywhere,” she said. And a lot of patients don’t go home at all. Over the past few weeks, the hospital has seen several days with more than five COVID-19 deaths per day, including a day where there were 10 deaths.
“We lost another father in his forties just a few days ago,” O’Neal said. “It keeps happening. And that is what the COVID tragedy is. “
As to where the epidemic is going, “I have to tell you that my crystal ball has broken several times over the past two years,” she said. But she added that the hospital must prepare for another increase in late November, as the flu season also accelerates.
Dr Sandra Kemmerly, medical director of the system for hospital quality at Ochsner Health in Louisiana, said this fourth outbreak of the pandemic has been more difficult. “It’s just frustrating for people to die from vaccine-preventable diseases,” she said.
At the height of this most recent wave, hospitals in Ochsner had 1,074 COVID-19 patients on August 9. That had fallen to 208 on Thursday.
Other hospitals are also recording decreases. The University of Mississippi Medical Center had 146 COVID-19 patients hospitalized at its peak in mid-August. It was at 39 Friday. Lexington Medical Center in West Columbia, South Carolina had more than 190 in early September, but only 49 on Friday.
But Kemmerly doesn’t expect the drop to last. “I expect to see more hospitalizations due to COVID,” she said.
Like many other health professionals, Natalie Dean, professor of biostatistics at Emory University, takes a cautious view of winter.
It’s unclear whether the coronavirus will adopt the seasonal flu pattern, with peaks predictable in winter as people congregate indoors for the holidays. Simply because of the size and diversity of the country, there will be places that will experience epidemics and flare-ups, she said.
In addition, the uncertainties of human behavior complicate the picture. People respond to the risk by taking precautions, which slows down viral transmission. Then, feeling more secure, people mingle more freely, triggering a new wave of contagion.
“Models of infectious diseases are different from weather models,” Dean said. “A hurricane doesn’t change course because of what the model said. ”
An influential model, from the University of Washington, predicts that new cases will rise again this fall, but vaccine protection and infection-induced immunity will prevent the virus from killing as many people as it did last winter.
Still, the model predicts that about 90,000 more Americans will die by January 1 for a total death toll of 788,000 by that date. The model calculates that about half of these deaths could be prevented if almost everyone wore masks in public.
“Wearing a mask is already going in the wrong direction,” said Ali Mokdad, professor of health metrics at the university. “We have to make sure that we are prepared for the winter because our hospitals are exhausted.”