Experts Are Worried About the Potential of Another Brutal COVID Winter

Back in the first genuine COVID lull we experienced — you know, the one that started to make the long-term infection rate for this thing look like the low point on an endless “W,” that place where capitalism first said IT’S GONE NOW YOU GUYS COME MAKE US MONEY until the inevitable resurge came — I remember a day when it was reported that only 7,000 people had been infected. I celebrated at the time, which seems ghoulish in retrospect, but you have to remember what those early days were like. A tally of 7,000 new infections was what passed for good news.

Flash forward to this morning, when it was reported that the 14-day average for new infections was 108,215 per day, a 1 percent increase. Few seemed to recoil in response to that six-digit number.

The 14-day average has been reliably clocking in around 100,000 new daily infections for many weeks now, and that tally is no doubt an undercount, given that many tests are currently happening solely at home — or not at all. These rising numbers should register as a shouted warning that COVID is not over and winter is, inevitably, coming.

“The coronavirus is still mutating,” reports Ed Yong for The Atlantic. “Even at one of the lowest death rates of the pandemic, it still claims the lives of hundreds of Americans daily, killing more than twice as many people as die, on average, in car accidents. Its costs are still disproportionately borne by millions of long-haulers; immunocompromised people; workers who still face unsafe working conditions; and Black, Latino, and Indigenous Americans, who are still dying at higher rates than white Americans.”

The last sentence above is the heart of things. While the infection rate still hovers at an absurdly high rate, the number of COVID deaths have plummeted overall. This is thanks to the vaccines and boosters which, while still not widely distributed enough due to militant conservative resistance and other factors, have definitely made an enormous difference. It’s also thanks to new treatments, which aren’t equally distributed, either. For millions of white people unencumbered with compromised immune systems who occupy a responsible work space, these vaccines have made COVID a grueling but survivable experience. Vaccinated people are still getting infected, sometimes more than once, but their bouts are, ah, ha, hum, “mild” by comparison to the raw deal.

Apologies for the “ah, ha, hum,” but a friend’s recent experience with COVID remains fresh in mind. My friend, her husband and their 4-year-old boy — the boy caught it first — were all laid out flat by the virus. Beyond the wretched experience my friend endured personally as an epileptic person sensitive to high body temperatures, she and her husband also had to watch their little guy blaze with fever as he endured a terrifying febrile seizure. He was infected before children his age were able to get vaccinated, so he was in a deeper sort of peril. They’re all still here, but that is what passes for “mild” for millions of people.

COVID may seem quiet now, for some — The Washington Post’s editorial board describes the moment as a “twilight zone” in which the virus is “neither causing major disruption to the nation nor vanishing” — and the bulk of summer is laid out before us. Everyone is goddamned exhausted, still reeling from the emotional impact caused by two years of fear and more than 1,000,000 deaths. The economic side effects of that long, bleak season have most everyone squeezing their budgets until they squeak. Roe has been erased, the midterm elections are upon us and politics in general remains the mayhem factory we have all endured for far too long.

Nobody wants to hear about COVID anymore, and therein lies the peril, because the experts are deeply worried about the potential for another brutal COVID winter. Ed Yong for The Atlantic explains further:

Across the country, almost all government efforts to curtail the coronavirus have evaporated. Mask mandates have been lifted on public transit. Conservative lawmakers have hamstrung what public-health departments can do in emergencies. COVID funding remains stalled in Congress, jeopardizing supplies of tests, treatments, and vaccines. The White House and the CDC have framed COVID as a problem for individuals to act upon — but action is hard when cases and hospitalizations are underestimated, many testing sites have closed, and rose-tinted CDC guidelines downplay the coronavirus’s unchecked spread. Many policy makers have moved on.

Virus variants BA.4 And BA.5 have begun to lay siege to Europe and other parts of the world, a harrowing preview of what may be to come here, as those variants are already well on their way to becoming the dominant vector in this country. If a new wave of infections does arrive, it will almost certainly exercise its lethality on the aforementioned vulnerable groups, who have already essentially barricaded themselves from normal life since it all began.

“The pandemic’s toll is no longer falling almost exclusively on those who chose not to or could not get shots,” reports The Boston Globe, “with vaccine protection waning over time and the elderly and immunocompromised — who are at greatest risk of succumbing to covid-19, even if vaccinated — having a harder time dodging increasingly contagious strains.”

We are required now to be actively concerned about more massive crises than any reasonable society should be expected to endure. War, climate, economy, freedom: If it feels like everything is suddenly on the line right now, it’s because everything is suddenly on the line right now. The instinct — no, the near-unendurable physical need — to slam the door on all of it is towering.

Yet we cannot do that, and COVID still remains near the top of the list, a threat among threats that has already taken a million lives. If we do not act now to implement reasonable mask requirements, provide widespread vaccination accessibility (including for young children, now that they’re eligible), and ensure treatments are as broadly available as possible, we must plan for another dangerous winter. Failure to do so amounts to whistling past a vast and growing graveyard.

Let us find our way to the new year without walking on a road of bones, again.