While everyone’s excited for “hot vaxx summer,” a reminder: Americans are still dying of COVID. Not in the same numbers as during last winter’s horrific peak, but still at an agonizing clip, with more than 700 fatalities a day on average. In other words, tens of thousands of otherwise healthy people walking around today will die of it in the months ahead.
Sure, there are plenty of reasons to feel optimistic. We now have highly effective vaccines, and close to half the adult U.S. population has gotten at least one dose, conferring a high degree of protection from the virus. Given that a third or more of the country may have built up immunity through already getting infected, that means we’re in striking distance of herd immunity, which will gradually drive new infections to sufficient rarity that the pandemic will effectively be over nationally. “We have reason to believe we’ll be in a good place by July,” says Justin Lessler, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins.
But it’s not at all clear how we’ll get there. After an unexpectedly successful rollout of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, uptake is now slowing, with many locations now having more doses than people taking them. Meanwhile, new variants of concern are emerging and spreading. One of them, B.1.1.7, first appeared around the New Year and now constitutes the majority of new infections in the United States.
“We’re in a footrace between the vaccine and the variants,” says Columbia University disease modeler Jeffrey Shaman. How that race plays out will make the difference between a gradually weakening pandemic that yields relatively few additional fatalities and one that drives the death toll to another spike. The experience of Michigan, where cases spiked eightfold between February and April even as overall caseloads in the U.S. were broadly declining, could be played out again and again in pockets of vulnerability. Continue reading New York: The Pandemic’s Lethal Twilight