In the spring, when the coronavirus was spreading across the planet, Americans took steps — slow and uneven as they might have been — to bring the first U.S. outbreaks under control. Houses of worship and nonessential businesses closed. People resigned themselves to wearing masks in public. They worked from home if they could, to reduce the risk to those who could not.
The federal government deployed resources to help people stay home. Major league sports suspended games. Broadway suspended plays. Families suspended vacations. Schools closed. Nursing homes and hospitals banned visitors. It was painful, and in some cases devastating — and it was still not enough to stamp out the virus in America.
Still, those steps mattered a great deal.
Case counts came down in places where they had been up, like New York City and Seattle. Surges that followed in early summer were beaten back, if not wholly quelled. In time, even nursing homes saw some decline in cases. While the economy tumbled grievously, the bottom did not fall out. Newly expanded unemployment benefits, combined with some $500 billion in federal aid, enabled small businesses to close or reduce their payrolls without setting off a surge in poverty rates. Easy credit for big businesses and stimulus checks for nearly everyone else also helped.
Much more could and should have been done. An egregious lack of national leadership gave the virus too consistent an edge, and far too many lives and livelihoods were still lost as a result. But for all those avoidable losses, we also gained crucial understanding of how this virus works, and of how it might be defeated.
At the moment, that lesson appears forgotten. The nation is entering its third, and potentially most dreadful, coronavirus surge. Earlier this month, the daily nationwide case count reached 100,000 for the first time. On Thursday it passed the 160,000 mark. Hospitalizations are at their highest point yet. Unlike previous surges, there is no epicenter. The virus is spreading everywhere.
Even communities that ought to know better are responding with a mix of apathy and magical thinking. In New York City, officials are preparing to once again close schools, while they leave bars and restaurants open for indoor service (albeit at reduced capacity). In Texas, the governor has dithered about closing or restricting businesses, even as case counts pass the one million mark.
Some people cling to the fact that while case counts are rising, death rates have so far remained low during this surge. That’s true. But it’s not that simple: Death isn’t the only bad outcome of contracting the coronavirus. Debilitating symptoms can last for months, and some doctors worry they may lead to permanent disability. Also, lower death rates are contingent on a high standard of care, which will be difficult to maintain across the country as case counts grow. In any case, death tolls are a lagging indicator. They tend to rise a few weeks after case counts do, which is what experts warn will happen later this month and next.
“It’s like we survived the Titanic,” says Dr. Umair Shah, health commissioner in Harris County, Texas. “Now we’re looking at the tip of an iceberg and pretending that the tip is the whole thing.”
Such wishful thinking and resignation are not difficult to understand. It seems cruel to close businesses and put people out of work again, especially when elected officials from both political parties have planned indoor election celebrations. It feels pointless to skip Thanksgiving, when after a year of such sacrifices, the virus still appears to be winning. Why believe that anything can defeat the pandemic when so far — in the United States at least — nothing has?
For most of the past year, the Trump administration has encouraged this mind-set, with a steady beat of delusional pronouncements: that the virus will go away on its own, that changing weather or herd immunity will rescue the nation, that however the charts look, things are really not that bad. Never mind that 240,000 Americans are dead, with 1,000 more dying every day, and the staff of the administration itself is shot through with outbreaks. It can be difficult to fathom the end of this thing.
Still, there are clear reasons to be hopeful. Doctors and scientists know much more about how this coronavirus spreads, and about how to treat the disease it causes. Drugs and long-heralded vaccines are coming through the pipeline, and in two months the nation will have a new president — one who campaigned on a promise not to squander the sacrifices that have been made and instead prioritize fighting the pandemic. President-elect Joe Biden has already put forth a plan, chock-full of evidence-based initiatives. He has also assembled a team of professionals who possess the experience and expertise that could help clean up this mess.
If Americans want to get the current surge under control through this long, dark winter, they need to skip indoor gatherings, including for the holidays. They need to avoid nonessential travel. They must wear face masks in all public places. They all need to practice social distancing. They need to quarantine when they think they’ve been exposed to the virus and isolate if they get a positive test result, even if no symptoms emerge.
It’s also clear what state and local leaders need to do: Promote social distancing and mask-wearing, and consider mandating masks in communities where case counts are soaring. Don’t wait to get contact tracing and quarantine programs up and running. Even if outbreaks are too widespread to find every case now, these programs can still help get localized clusters under control, and will be crucial to keeping things in check once the current crisis abates. It makes little sense to close schools, especially when bars and restaurants remain open indoors. The latter have been consistently linked to case clusters across the country, while the former have not.
Closures will be painful. They will be downright catastrophic without the right economic support. Congress must set its partisan bickering aside and immediately pass a new stimulus bill for the good of the country, and for the sake of its most vulnerable constituents.
These are not new revelations. They are derived from months of hard lessons backed by hard evidence — and those are the only things that can save us now.