Coronavirus metrics grim as winter sets in and U.S. awaits political transition

covidhospitalsnov-259x300As the winter of 2020-21 descends, the coronavirus pandemic is raging, unchecked, from coast-to-coast while the folks in control of the federal government sulk and seem to have checked out from their governing roles.

The numbers likely are understated.  But roughly 265,000 Americans have been killed by the Covid-19 virus and more than 13 million of us have been infected with it. Records are falling left and right, as reported cases skyrocket daily — from thousands, to tens of thousands, and now to more than 200,000 per day. The number of new cases in November alone jumped past 4 million, compared with the October record of 1.9 million.

A significant goal of public health battles with the coronavirus — to prevent the U.S. health system from getting overwhelmed with cases, slashing at all medical services and not just Covid-19 treatment — is under major threat. That’s because the nation is busting records on coronavirus hospitalizations, sitting at 90,000 patients and heading toward the fearsome number of 100,000.

Clinicians, working under less duress in recent months, had improved treatment of coronavirus patients, who also, generally speaking, had become younger and with less serious underlying conditions. That had led to fewer deaths due to the disease.

That trend, too, is reversing as doctors, nurses, and hospitals get inundated with cases. Daily coronavirus deaths have increased past 2,000 — highs not seen since earlier in the year.

No state (nor the District of Columbia) has escaped the winter coronavirus spike and major worry about its severity. This has led state and local officials to impose new public health restrictions, with stay-at-home requirements or advisories in place from coast-to-coast, including in California, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin. Officials have sought to avoid harsher measures, such as full lockdowns.

But restaurants, bars, gyms, schools, and stores all have struggled with stricter measures that may yet become even stiffer for them as the pandemic worsens.

While untold numbers of Americans heeded the advice of federal health authorities — who seem to have regained their gumption after months of political browbeating — and curtailed or canceled Thanksgiving plans, millions flew, drove, or traveled by other means to get together with friends and families.

The impact of these decisions may not become clear for a while. Experts also caution those who follow the numbers will need to do so with care for the next bit, because the holiday weekend and other reporting lags may disguise the true and harsh picture of what’s happening with the pandemic.

As for what’s happening with the White House, the torpor has become plain to see. Vice President Pence appeared for the first time in months at a briefing of the federal coronavirus task force he heads, urging vigilance by Americans, defending the administration’s work, and taking no press questions. President Trump has played golf and nursed extreme and unfounded conspiracy theories about his election defeat, while speaking little about the pandemic, save for promising that prospective vaccines will be available soon.

An independent panel will meet in the days ahead to weigh whether to recommend to federal authorities whether they should give emergency approval to vaccine makers, who have reported by news release seemingly optimistic data about the effectiveness of their products. President-elect Biden and his incoming administration have begun to get briefed on the nation’s huge and complex vaccination plans — this after Alex Azar, the Health and Human Services chief, stalled. Azar claimed that the giant health department, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, could not confer about the pandemic until an obscure bureaucrat at the General Services Administration approved the presidential transition.

Congress, in the meantime, also has gone AWOL, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell taking his colleagues into multiple recesses. McConnell continues to push the Senate to approve federal judge candidates, while blocking consideration of pandemic relief measures that might benefit tens of millions of jobless Americans, the U.S. health care system, and families going hungry and facing year-end evictions.

Did I mention that lawmakers also have not appropriated the sums that states say they will need to pay to vaccinate hundreds of millions of Americans, if a vaccine or multiple vaccines win approval for use?

In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also their struggles to access and afford safe, efficient, and excellent health care. This has become an ordeal due to the skyrocketing cost, complexity, and uncertainty of treatments and prescription medications, too many of which prove to be dangerous drugs.

That said, the U.S. health system is at grave risk due to the pandemic and we need to give it and the brave health workers in it as much support as we can as they grapple with superhuman demands, stresses, and strains. They also need more resources, including testing, personal protective equipment, and other medical supplies. The clueless who can’t be bothered with public health measures, even if it pushes doctors, nurses, and other health workers and first-resoponders beyond the brink need to get the message that trained medical personnel are a finite quality. If we burn out what we have, we can’t just reorder.

Many of us have worked in positions that did not give us time off, or only a little, during the end of the year holidays. We made do. We can again. We can wear face coverings, practice excellent hygiene (especially with robust hand washing), maintain distances, and avoid closed, confined spaces. We can forego seasonal gatherings, large and small, for the next while, knowing it is better to be safe and healthy than sick, hospitalized, and even gone — just as a new year, perhaps, brings advances in beating the coronavirus.

We can hope for holiday gifts and new year resolutions to arrive early, too. We can hope that we can turn down the volume with those who disagree with us, while turning up the rigor with which we research, analyze, and make crucial decisions, especially about our health, based on science, evidence, and expertise. We can hope that one and all realize that Covid-19 doesn’t care a whit about U.S. politics, and defeating it will require collective action and shared altruism. We’ll be watching the nifty clock that marks just how soon a failed administration will exit. And we can pray that the next one does far better work to ensure our nation is healthy, safe, working, and nourished.

Credit, chart above:  The COVID Tracking Project
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