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100 Million New COVID Infections Could Be Just Months Away

The federal government should prepare fully for the next COVID surge, drawing on hard-earned knowledge and tools.

A tired nurse leaves Mt. Sinai Morningside hospital in New York City, on April 23, 2020.

As far as medical publications go, it doesn’t get much better than The Lancet. Founded in 1823, the journal has published many of the most important peer-reviewed studies, articles and case reviews in the field.

Over the weekend, The Lancet dropped an editorial titled “COVID-19: the next phase and beyond.” It read:

After living for more than 2 years with COVID-19—with over 6·2 million confirmed deaths (but probably many more, with an estimated 20 million excess deaths) and over 510 million confirmed cases—the world is at a critical point. The omicron wave, with its high transmissibility and milder course than previous variants, especially for people who are fully vaccinated and without comorbidities, is abating in many countries.

Restrictions are being relaxed, and people are slowly returning to pre-pandemic activities, including gatherings, office-based working, and cultural events. Mask mandates are being lifted in many countries. Testing and surveillance have decreased and travelling is recommencing widely. People are understandably exhausted and want to forget about the pandemic. This would be a grave mistake.

Now is not the time to turn away from COVID-19 or rewrite history. It is time to vigorously engage, redouble efforts to end the acute phase of the pandemic in 2022 for all, and lay strong sustainable foundations for a better future with clear accountabilities and honest acceptance of uncomfortable truths.

The key phrase in this passage — “It is time to vigorously engage, redouble efforts to end the acute phase of the pandemic in 2022 for all” — cannot be overstated. A sort of passive haze has fallen across our collective approach to this ongoing — yes, ongoing — medical calamity. Brutal war in Ukraine dominates the headlines, but even the price of ground beef has managed to push aside the fact that more than 70,000 people were infected with COVID-19 yesterday in this country alone.

That represents a full 50 percent increase in infections from two weeks ago. Although deaths and hospitalizations remain down, thankfully, the acute phase of infection has not ended. Yet our incredible short-sightedness has hamstrung our testing to the point that we could very well be in the midst of a full-blown surge and not have any idea how bad it is, or how bad it could get. That 70,000 number, thanks to our collapsed testing regime, is almost certainly a low estimate.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, along with a slew of notables from various networks and publications, came down with COVID in the aftermath of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, an apt metaphor for the age. “Jada Yuan, a reporter at The Washington Post who tested positive Wednesday after attending the dinner, had said at the time that the ballroom was ‘like a horror film,’” reported The New York Times. “‘No exits. Literally getting trapped between tables,’ Yuan wrote on Twitter. ‘Fear of breathing near people but people are everywhere. Creeping sense that you’re the only one who know this is insane.’”

Delta, then Omicron, then BA.1, then BA.2, then BA.2.12.1, and now BA.4 and BA.5… all variants and subvariants from the original form, each inching closer to eviscerating the rapidly diminishing protections offered by multiple rounds of vaccine shots. “The virus that brought us COVID-19 is now going through accelerated evolution,” warns Eric J. Topol, professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research. “Our vaccines must do the same.”

To that end, and to multiple other vital ends, the Biden administration is seeking $22.5 billion in emergency aid for continued pandemic response. These pleas, of course, are running straight into the teeth of congressional Republicans who want to slash that amount while tying it to the Title 42 brawl at the border. Short version: This vital funding appears prepared to go exactly as nowhere as the last White House request for COVID help.

“The Biden administration is preparing for the possibility that 100 million Americans — roughly 30 percent of the population — will get infected with the coronavirus this fall and winter,” reports The New York Times. “The 100 million figure, which the official described as a median of what could be expected, also assumes a lack of federal resources if Congress does not approve any more money for tests, therapeutics and vaccines, and that many vaccinated and previously infected people would become infected again.”

In November of 2020, Uri Friedman wrote for The Atlantic, “The United States — with its diversified economy, cutting-edge scientific innovation, and numerous other resilience-oriented attributes — might have been expected to cope particularly well with a pandemic. But COVID-19 has exposed the country’s vulnerabilities: all-encompassing political polarization; debilitating economic and health-care inequality; a president who has downplayed the threat of the virus and rejected scientific guidance; a decades-long drive to optimize the economy and society for efficiency, not resilience; and a national creed of individualism, optimism, and exceptionalism that has rendered the U.S. resistant to learning from other countries.”

Seventeen months later, The Lancet along with vaccine experts and the Biden White House are warning at top voice that we have, to date, failed to adequately cope with the challenge posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The virus is changing every day, yet we continue to react to it with half-measures and foggy assumptions that “the worst is behind us.” We are one cruel variant away from falling back into a terrifying surge of hospitalizations. That’s not just here in the U.S. That’s everywhere; COVID does love to travel, and the first thing we seem to do when we catch a whiff of progress is to tear off our masks and blow open the borders. “Learning the hard way” already has a million-person body count. How many more will we tolerate before getting this right?

Let’s get ready for real this time.

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