Spring has arrived, and this year with perhaps more promise than usual. Not just for warmer temperatures and more daylight, but for the potential end to the isolation, physical distancing and despair that marked 2020.
Even as we begin our 14th month of living with COVID-19, every day brings us closer to the public health goal of herd immunity, the point at which enough of the world’s population has acquired resistance to the novel coronavirus so that we can declare an end to the global pandemic. We are in a life-threatening race to achieve this goal. As our friends and neighbors receive vaccinations, the finish line seems tantalizingly close, inviting us to relax and enlarge our social circles. But this is not the time to relax and try to cruise to the finish line.
A week ago, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, spoke to the nation and acknowledged her “recurring feeling of impending doom.” Even though there is so much reason for hope, she said, “Right now I am scared.”
What frightens her is our haste to return to normalcy and pre-COVID behavior.
The CDC had reported a new surge nationwide: The seven-day average for positive COVID-19 cases rose nearly 10.6%, and COVID-19-related hospitalizations rose 4.2%, over the previous seven days. The average number of COVID-19 deaths has increased again, as well.
Our four UW Medicine hospital campuses have experienced that upswell, too, with COVID-19 inpatient numbers doubling over the previous seven days. Even as thousands of community members have received vaccinations, the downturn in inpatient volumes that we had seen over the past month has stopped abruptly and spiked upward again.
UW Medicine’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation has closely tracked the disease’s global spread and trajectory. Accounting for vaccinations as well as for the higher transmission caused by disease variants, the IHME projects that the worldwide toll of COVID-19 deaths will now reach 3.98 million by July 1, up from 2.79 million today.
That is a staggering number to consider.
Moreover, this newest wave of disease is being disproportionately experienced by younger people who are still awaiting their turns to be vaccinated. Nationwide, about 66% of new, lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases involve people younger than 65, according to COVID-Net. In Michigan, for example, recent COVID-19 hospitalizations increased by an unimaginable 633% for adults ages 30-39 and by 800% for adults ages 40-49. This does not account for the many others who have mild cases that do not require hospitalization.
Despite our best efforts to put COVID-19 behind us, I share Dr. Walensky’s fear. We cannot let our collective guard down now, and we need to continue practicing the tried-and true-safety measures that we know help prevent the spread of this disease: wearing a mask, physical distancing and hand washing.
At UW Medicine, we constantly remind our employees of the importance of these safety practices, not only at work but also at home and in our communities where the spread of the virus is mostly happening. And as a practicing primary care physician, I counsel my patients to continue to mask and follow the other safety measures until enough people are vaccinated and we reach herd immunity.
Recently, UW Medicine teamed up with the Seattle Mariners on a campaign to strike out COVID-19 in our communities. While this campaign mostly focuses on encouraging vaccine acceptance, especially in communities hardest hit by the virus, another important message of the campaign is the need to continue following everyday safety practices to limit the spread of the disease as much as possible.
We are in a life-threatening race, racing to vaccinate more than 80% of the population. While we strive to make vaccinations available for all individuals as rapidly as possible, COVID-19 is spreading much too fast. I understand that many people are tired of wearing masks and practicing physical distancing. I am, too. But getting through this pandemic without substantial further harm and additional loss of lives will take a renewed commitment. Wear a mask. Practice physical distancing. Wash your hands. It’s up to each of us to put the safety of our families, friends and communities first.