CHICAGO – When the coronavirus began sweeping around the globe this spring, people from Seattle to Rome to London canceled weddings and vacations, interrupted visits to grandparents and hacked into their homes for what they thought would be a short but important period of isolation.
But the summer did not extinguish the virus. And with the fall has come another dangerous, uncontrolled wave of infections, which in parts of the world so far is the worst of the pandemic.
The United States surpassed 8 million known cases in the past week and reported more than 70,000 new infections on Friday, most in a single day since July. Eighteen states added more new coronavirus infections during the seven-day stretch that ended Friday than in any other week of the pandemic.
In Europe, cases are rising and admissions are rising. Britain imposes new restrictions and France has put cities on “maximum alert” and ordered many to close all bars, gyms and sports centers. Germany and Italy set records for the latest daily cases. And leaders in the Czech Republic described their health care system as “in danger of collapsing”
The virus has taken different paths through these countries as leaders have tried to reduce the spread with a number of restrictions. Shared, however, is a public fatigue and a growing tendency to risk the dangers of coronavirus out of desire or necessity. Endless in sight, many people flock to bars, family parties, bowling alleys and sporting events, just as they did before the virus struck, and others have to return to school or work when communities try to revive economies. And in stark contrast to spring, the rituals of hope and unity that helped people endure the first wave of the virus have left room for exhaustion and frustration.
“People are done putting hearts on their windows and teddy bears next to captive hunting,” said Katie Rosenberg, the mayor of Wausau, Wisconsin, a 38,000-strong city where a hospital has opened an additional unit to treat COVID-19 patients. “They’ve had enough.”
In parts of the world where the virus returns, the outbreaks and an increasing sense of apathy collide, resulting in a dangerous combination. Health officials say the growing impatience is a new challenge as they try to slow down recent outbreaks and it threatens to exacerbate what they fear will be a devastating fall.
The issue is particularly acute in the United States, which has more known cases and deaths than any other country and has already passed two major coronavirus outbreaks; infections peaked in the spring in the northeast and again in the summer over the sun belt. But a similar phenomenon is triggering alarms across Europe, with researchers from the World Health Organization estimating that about half of the population experiences “pandemic fatigue.”
“Citizens have made great sacrifices,” said Dr. Hans Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe. “It has had an extraordinary price that has exhausted us all, no matter where we live or what we do.”
If spring was marked by horror, autumn has become a strange mixture of resignation and attention. People who did not even want to leave their homes are now considering eating indoors for the first time – some lose patience after so many months without, others slip into a beautiful meal before the threatening winter months when the virus is expected to spread more easily. Many people still wear masks to support their neighbors and protect others, but sidewalks that were decorated with chalk messages for health professionals and others at Easter are likely to be bare at Halloween.
“In the spring, it was fear and a sense of ‘We are all in it,'” said Vaile Wright, a psychologist at the American Psychological Association who studies stress in the United States.
“Things are different now,” she said. “Fear has really been replaced with fatigue.”
In New York, Indra Singh, 60, took the toddler she is babysitting to a playground one recent morning.
“I’m so tired of everything,” she said, pulling on the black mask on her face, worrying about what she would do when the weather got cold. “Will it be over?” she said. “I want it over.”
Medical treatments for the virus have improved significantly since the spring, and deaths remain lower than at their worst peak, but recent growth in coronavirus infections has raised public health officials. More than 218,000 people have died in the United States since the pandemic began, and daily deaths have been relatively consistent in recent weeks, with about 700 a day.
In some parts of the world, behavior has changed and containment efforts have been tough and effective. Infections have been relatively low for several months in places such as South Korea, Japan, New Zealand, Australia and China, where the virus first spread. After a dozen cases were discovered in the Chinese city of Qingdao, authorities last week searched to test all of its 9.5 million inhabitants.
“We have very little setback here against this type of measure,” said Siddharth Sridhar, an assistant professor of microbiology at the University of Hong Kong. “If anything, there is a lot of pushback against governments for not doing enough to contain the virus.”
The answer in the US and much of Europe has been far different. While residents willingly banded together in the spring, time has given rise to frustration and revolt.
Hotspots are popping up in the southern and mid-Atlantic areas of the United States and expanding rapidly in the Midwest and Mountain West. Illinois last week recorded its highest daily number of confirmed cases since the pandemic began and the most deaths in a single day since June.
In Spain, a summer of travel and dancing has led to a new rise in autumn. In Germany, health authorities on Thursday registered 7,334 infections over a 24-hour period, a national record. Even Italy, which introduced one of the most erroneous lockdowns in Europe this spring, is now seeing alarming new growth and is considering a curfew at 1 p.m. 22.00 nationwide.
The virus has seeped through communities, rural areas and cities. In Chicago, public schools remained closed to students for a sixth consecutive week as the city’s share of positive coronavirus tests reached nearly 5%. In Gove County, Kansas, 2,600 residents, nine people have died from the virus in recent days, health officials reported. Clusters of infections have emerged from a spa in Washington state, a hockey league in Vermont, a Baptist church in North Carolina and a Sweet 16 party on Long Island.
Sick people tell contact trackers that they have picked up the virus while trying to return to normal life. Beth Martin, a retired school librarian who works as a contact track in Marathon County, Wisconsin, said she interviewed a family who had fallen ill through what is now a common situation – at a birthday party for a relative in early October.
“Another case said to me, ‘You know what, it’s my adult son’s fault,'” she recalled. “‘He decided to go to a wedding and now we’re all sick.'”
Mark Harris, county manager for Winnebago County, Wisconsin, said he had been frustrated by the “high minority” in his county who had successfully pushed back against any public health measure to be taken against the pandemic.
They have a unique state of mind, he said, “‘This has bothered me long enough and I’m done changing my behavior.'”
In the Czech Republic, a politically divided nation, people met the original order to go home in the spring with an unusual show of unity. They started a national masquerade campaign that was recognized worldwide for its ingenuity. Confidence in the government, for its handling of the crisis, reached a record 86%.
Since then, support for the government’s response has fallen and the country is now experiencing the fastest rise in virus cases in Europe. About half of the more than 150,000 cases registered in the Czech Republic have come in the last two weeks, and more than half of the country’s almost 1,300 deaths have come this month.
Poland is not far behind with an explosion of new cases and a declining interest in volunteering. The country of 38 million has the lowest number of doctors per. EU resident and some doctors now refuse to join coronavirus teams concerned about security protocols.
“We are on the brink of disaster,” Pawel Grzesiowski, a prominent Polish immunologist, told Polish radio station RMF FM.
There is growing evidence that ongoing stress is taking a toll. In the US, alcohol sales in stores have increased by 23% during the pandemic, according to Nielsen, a figure that could reflect the country’s anxiety as well as the decline in beverages sold at restaurants and bars.
Overdose deaths are also increasing in many cities. In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, which includes Cleveland, there were recently 19 overdose deaths in a single week, far more than most weeks.
“Like many other people, I would be happy for 2020 to end,” said Dr. Thomas Gilson, county medical examination.
In the early days of the pandemic, Shanna Groom, 47, was busy spreading uplifting messages in her neighborhood in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. She drew smiling faces in chalk in her driveway, waving school flags as teachers visited the neighborhood and placing a teddy bear in her window as part of a “bear hunt” for neighborhood kids.
The bear, dressed as a nurse, wearing a mask and mint green scrub, sat in her dining windows for several months. This month, Groom finally removed the bear to paint the room.
“It made me a little sad,” said Groom, a nurse. “We did sprints in the beginning, and now it’s a marathon. We’re a little tired. ”
In many states, companies are open and often operate without restrictions, even if admissions are driven up. In the last week in Wisconsin, a field hospital at the state amusement park with a capacity of 530 beds was reopened for coronavirus patients.
Dr. Michael Landrum, who treats coronavirus patients in Green Bay, Wisconsin, said mask use is more prevalent than in the spring, that personal protective equipment is easier to get past for hospital workers, and the treatment of the virus is more sophisticated.
At the time, it was not so difficult to find out how sick patients had contracted coronavirus. There were outbreaks of meat packing plants in the city and many cases were linked to them. Now it’s more complicated.
“The scary scenario is the number of patients who really do not know where they are,” Landrum said. “It suggests to me that it’s spreading out there very easily.”
The next challenge, he said, would be to convince people that they need to take significant steps – again – to slow down the spread, which could be even worse than before.
“We try to get people to change their behavior to be more socially distant and more restrictive with their contacts,” Landrum said. “There has been a false sense of complacency. And now it’s just a lot harder to do. ”