Twenty months into a pandemic that claimed nearly 770,000 U.S. lives and nearly a year after Covid-19 vaccinations became available, U.S. health experts warn that a fifth wave of infections is endangering health systems in the worst-affected states become, too overwhelming.
Fears of another boom in infections comes on the verge of the Thanksgiving holiday, when tens of millions of Americans will travel to reconnect with their families, some of them for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic.
But what was expected to be a celebration has become dangerous in some Midwestern states, where vaccination rates are low and Covid-19 cases are rising rapidly after a summer lull.
Even some northeastern states where vaccination rates are more than 70 percent, such as Maine and Vermont, are experiencing an increase in case numbers, a trend that is likely to reflect breakthrough infections caused by dwindling immunity to Covid stimuli, according to epidemiologists.
For now, at least, hospitalization rates in these states are not rising as fast as in the Midwest, indicating vaccines remains an essential tool for preventing serious diseases.
“We are preparing for the absolute worst,” said Andrew Jameson, a physician for infectious diseases at Mercy Health Saint Mary’s Hospital in Michigan, a state where daily Covid-19 case numbers have nearly doubled since early November, said.
Jameson added: “We are exhausted. It’s hard. The biggest burden is honestly borne by the nurses. We have lost so many critical care nurses who have just left the bed completely. ”
In Minnesota, state authorities this week called on 400 members of the National Guard to assist nurses in long-term care facilities experiencing chronic staff shortages.
Nationally, business has increased by nearly 30 percent since the beginning of the month to a peak of 28 cases per 100,000 people, below the January 2021 peak of about 75 cases per 100,000 people.
But the leap in infections is causing health experts concern, warning that a nation with abundant access to jabs is being dangerously exposed due to low vaccination rates, politicization of mask wear and social distance, and increasing public complacency.
“We are in the early stages of what will be a significant fifth wave,” said Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute. He added that the US is in a “worse position than all countries in Western Europe”, some of which are struggling with third waves.
Just under 60 per cent of Americans are fully vaccinated, compared with 69 per cent in the UK, 79 per cent in Spain and 86 per cent in Portugal. The US is in a similar position to many Eastern European countries such as Hungary and Poland, where Covid vaccination is highly reluctant and a deadly wave of the virus runs the risk of causing chaos in hospitals, according to Topol.
In the US, political affiliation has correlated with vaccine reluctance, and unvaccinated adults are now three times as likely to lean Republican as Democrats, according to a recent KKF poll. The Republican Party has also stepped up its opposition to the Biden administration’s vaccine and mask mandates, despite the recent increase in business.
At Mercy Health Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, just over one-fifth of the 350 beds with Covid-19 patients are admitted, a dramatic turnaround from the summer, when virtually no one was admitted to the hospital.
Jameson attributes the deteriorating situation to the rapid spread of the highly contagious Delta variant, people who took fewer precautions because they were ‘burnt out’ by months of social distance, and large numbers of unvaccinated people in some parts of the state.
“The patients who are in the ICU and are the sickest are almost exclusively vaccinated, but we see older [vaccinated] patients, typically 70- to 80-year-olds, admitted to the hospital. “These are people who may not have had such a good immune response,” Jameson said.
The Biden administration’s attempt to roll out a rapid-fire campaign has been hampered by strife among government scientists. So far, only 18 percent of the fully vaccinated population has had a booster shot, most of them older than 50, according to government data.
The increase in Covid cases before Thanksgiving has meant difficult decisions for many families planning a holiday reunion.
Natalie Chaudhuri, a 21-year-old student at Georgetown University in Washington, said she decided not to return to her home state of Texas, where both her parents are health care workers. Instead, she will meet her siblings in New York.
Chaudhuri said she and her siblings all got a scratch shot before the holiday and would be tested before and after the trip.
“I was more concerned, especially since we saw a big increase after Halloween on campus,” Chaudhuri added. “But we’re a majority vaccinated campus, so that helped me feel better about it.”
For many public health experts, increasing vaccination rates remains the key to ensuring that hospitals do not become overcrowded and that mortality rates do not rise.
“Just because we’re facing a fifth wave does not mean it has to be a deadly one,” said David Dowdy, an associate professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.
Dowdy said the difference between last winter’s deadly wave of Covid-19 and the impending surge is the much greater levels of immunity, mainly due to the vaccine.
He added: “That immunity may not always be enough to stop someone from getting sick, but in most cases it will keep them alive and out of the hospital.”