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US Sewer Data and Surges Abroad Should Remind Us the Pandemic Isn’t Over

The news may tell you we’re returning to “normalcy,” but 8,000 dead a week tells a different story.

A person is transferred onto a bus outside Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Hong Kong on March 10, 2022, as the government announced the hospital will be used only for COVID-19 patients.

The method of testing wastewater to detect virus levels within a whole population has been around since the days of polio, but it took a March 2020 outbreak of COVID-19 in Austria to turn the technique into a mainstay in the pandemic fight. In the U.S., where the last president fled even the idea of mass COVID testing for fear of harming his reelection campaign, wastewater testing has become one of the best and only ways to track viral trends among broad swaths of the population.

That’s the good news. The bad news? The numbers are inching up, again. “A wastewater network that monitors for Covid-19 trends is warning that cases are once again rising in many parts of the U.S., according to an analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data,” reports Bloomberg News. “More than a third of the CDC’s wastewater sample sites across the U.S. showed rising Covid-19 trends in the period ending March 1 to March 10, though reported cases have stayed near a recent low.”

This brings to bear a number of disturbing possibilities. Scientists have been watching the BA.2 subvariant with growing levels of concern; it is already making a strong showing in China and parts of Europe. It is entirely possible BA.2 is already present here in the U.S., and is at least partially responsible for the rise in cases across the country. If so, the damage done by Delta and Omicron will be instructive in the weeks and months to come.

It has been wisely said, however, that one should not think of zebras upon hearing hoofbeats. Occam’s Razor suggests an exhausted nation is shedding its personal COVID protections on the gossamer promise that a corner has been turned. Mask mandates are all but gone except in a few key and continually contentious arenas, such as school districts and commercial airlines. Thus, the current rise in cases could be due to a segment of the populace letting down its defenses because the TV said, “Everything’s cool now, y’all, come on out and be capitalists again.”

The news may tell you we’re returning to “normalcy,” but 8,000 dead a week tells a different story; if this uptick continues, it runs the risk of taxing our already-battered health care infrastructure if/when BA.2 does come knocking.

The new COVID outbreak in China, on the other hand, has the potential to rattle the entire world. The Chinese government has instituted a full-scale lockdown in several regions, which is directly impacting tech giants like Foxconn, Tencent and Huawei. Any significant disruption could further undermine the global supply chain, and risks exacerbating growing inflationary pressures. Foxconn, whose client list includes Apple, informed CNN upon query that the “date of factory resumption is to be advised by the local government.”

Meanwhile, Russia’s bloody war in Ukraine is having a ruinous effect on another global supply chain, this one involving food. “The head of the United Nations warned Monday that Russia’s assault on Ukraine is pushing the global food system to the brink of disaster as wheat prices skyrocket and key supply chains are thrown into chaos, threatening a hunger crisis in Europe and well beyond,” reports Common Dreams. “Ukraine alone provides more than half of the World Food Programme’s wheat supply… All of this is hitting the poorest the hardest and planting the seeds for political instability and unrest around the globe.”

War, famine, pestilence… three horsemen of the apocalypse as devised by John of Patmos. The fourth? “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.”

I’ve never been the praying type, so let’s keep it simple and bring it all back to the wastewater: We’re in deep shit, friends.

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