Since the number of daily COVID-19 cases retreated from a post-holiday high in the first two weeks of January, newscasts on the topic have consistently led with encouraging news about how case counts were plummeting. Which was true, until the last two weeks.

At the moment, the United States appears to have reached another of those case-count plateaus, this one at around 70,000 new cases per day. Next to the point where the seven-day moving average exceeded 250,000 cases a day on Jan. 11, that may seem fantastic, but it is still astoundingly awful. It’s also a sign that the United States, despite everything, has not broken out of the pattern that has made this nation a world leader in converting its citizens into coronavirus deaths.

The first spike of the virus in the early spring of 2020 saw daily cases exceed 30,000, before settling back to a long period around 20,000 cases a day. The second spike that summer took cases to near 70,000, after which they retreated to several months of around 40,000 cases a day. Finally, the big spike at the end of winter took cases over 250,000, and now they’ve retreated … but only to a point. Each new spike of cases has seen the United States fall back, not anything like safety, but to a level that exceeds the worst of the previous spike. That still appears to be the case.

In spite of vaccines, in spite of continued mask wearing in many areas, the general “COVID fatigue,” abetted by a feeling among too many people that the pandemic is already over, is leading to some genuinely boneheaded decisions. Take this story from WebMd that was published at the beginning of this month. 

“Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds has lifted some of the state’s main COVID restrictions. As of Sunday, people will no longer be required to wear face masks or limit the size of indoor and outdoor gatherings.”

How did that work out? Here’s the latest map from the CDC showing new cases of COVID-19 by population.

To be fair, the numbers here are distorted by the fact that Iowa has become irregular in reporting case counts. It’s not necessarily a reflection of Reynold’s ongoing effort to prove she can be just as foolish as Kristi Noem or Ron DeSantis. As in Missouri, state officials in Iowa have decided that it’s no longer really necessary to keep the public all that informed. So the real timing of case counts becomes difficult to interpret when they’re being delivered in untidy lumps. Looking at hospitalizations, Iowa is actually at a lower point than it’s been in months, and it’s quite likely that the apparent fire in Iowa will disappear from the map in the next couple of days as more data arrives.

Though there’s no reason it has to. From California to New York, the United States is beset by variants that are more contagious (more readily passed from person to person), more virulent (more likely to result in serious illness or death), and more evasive (more likely to overcome immunity from past infection or vaccination). Worst of all, the variants are not all carrying the same mutations. There are multiple different changes to the spike protein and other components of the virus. The presence of these multiple variants in the same population makes it more likely that someone will be infected by more than one, which makes it easier for some gene-swapping to occur that results in a virus that packs multiple “improvements” against what’s now thought of as the “wild strain.”

While many of the variants are demonstrably more infectious, they’re not as infectious as something like measles or smallpox. While some of the variants are more virulent, they’re not nearly so deadly as close cousin SARS. And while some of the variants are evasive, they are not so evasive that they should overwhelm the powerful immune response generated by the vaccines already available. But it doesn’t have to stay that way. Any, or all, of these factors could become past tense. 

And the biggest factor that makes the risk of things getting worse is … things getting worse. That is, the more cases that are out there, the more chance that there will not only be more cases in the future, but that the virus itself will become a greater threat.

As The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday, the United States is not alone in this. Researchers in the U.K. are warning that that nation could see over 50,000 more deaths—about 40% of its current total—before the pandemic is brought under real control. It’s enough to convince even Boris Johnson that, “We cannot escape the fact that lifting lockdown will result in more cases, more hospitalizations and sadly more deaths.”

Relaxing social distancing guidelines or mask requirements at this point isn’t acknowledging that we’ve met some criteria of success. By every guideline that was issued by the CDC in 2020, case counts and hospitalization rates are in the worst category.  

And in the meantime, you get tragedies like this one reported by KSDK in St. Louis. After both parents tested positive for COVID-19, they isolated themselves from their daughter in a basement bedroom. Unable to get a response from her parents last Thursday morning, the 11-year-old went down those basement stairs and opened the door to find both of her parents had died in the night.

“At Christmas time,” said a neighbor, “they came down to our door and gave us cookies. They were just the nicest people. We are praying for the girl and their family.”

That’s a horrible story. It’s also just one variation of a theme that’s now been played over half a million times—unnecessary grief. Unbearable loss. Don’t become the subject, or the author, of one of those stories. Keep social distancing. Wear a good quality mask. Get vaccinated when you can. And keep holding on. 

We’re so close. It would be a shame to put us right back where we were when Donald Trump made that promise a year ago.

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