But some experts say there is hope.
Vaccines, spring weather and surprisingly the large number of infections all give rise to optimism, Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia and a member of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee, said Wednesday.
In addition, there is an expectation that the incoming Biden administration will handle things better than the Trump administration has.
While the “terrible” numbers are likely to worsen in the next few months, Offit believes the US could stop the spread of the virus by June.
Offit believes things “will get dramatically better soon.”
Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, agreed. “We can see a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said, adding that vaccines “show us a way forward.”
States are still struggling to get vaccines into people’s arms. With approx. 35% of vaccines distributed to states have been given to humans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. And the US government’s Operation Warp Speed has only managed to send approx. 10 million doses to state and local governments – half of what it promised to be distributed and administered by the end of 2020.
“It’s still not there by any means. There’s still a lot of work to be done to get the vaccination program started,” Benjamin said.
But there is a steady increase in the number of people being vaccinated. States have passed an average of 500,000 vaccinations a day – something that gives Benjamin confidence that the country can reach a million a day, if not more.
The incoming administration
Offit is also hopeful about the upcoming Biden administration, noting that President-elect Joe Biden’s team is “not interested in this cult of denial” that surrounded the Trump administration’s coronavirus response and would “take this issue seriously.”
Benjamin believes the Biden team will make more use of the Defense Production Act to ensure a stable, reliable supply of vaccine. He also looks forward to a better coordinated, all-of-government response.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and an infectious disease physician, praised the Biden administration’s plans to increase the availability of home tests, join the World Health Organization and restore pandemic staff at the National Security Council.
He also hopes that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will operate independently under the Biden administration. “The fact that we have not been able to really get to grips with this pandemic has been because the CDC has not been able to act as they usually do during crisis situations,” Adalja said.
“The weather gets warmer when the weather gets warmer, it makes it a lot harder for this virus,” Offit said. When it is hot and humid, the virus, which is spread by droplets, must spread less easily, he said.
Benjamin also pointed out that people can spend more time outdoors when the weather gets warmer across the United States. People can stay further apart when they are outside and do not share the same air – so the virus has less opportunity to pass from one person to another.
“The virus will find it harder to move from person to person, especially when people are doing outdoor activities in the summer,” Adalja said.
“We didn’t really see the seasonality this summer because there were so many people who were not immune to the virus,” he added. “Even during the summer weather conditions (the virus) still found it quite easy to find new people to infect.”
Growing herd immunity
Another reason for optimism is that a large number of Americans who have probably been infected and now have some immunity to the virus, Offit said.
While 23 million have been diagnosed and reported, the number is an underestimated one. Many people have had asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic infection and were never tested. The number of people who have been infected is likely closer to 65 or 70 million, Offit said.
“20% of the population, when re-exposed to this virus, do not get sick from it,” he said. It is not clear how long the immunity after infection lasts, but studies show that it is at least eight or nine months and maybe longer.
If another 55 to 60% of the population can be vaccinated – something, as Offit said, can be done with a million to a million and a half doses a day – “then I really think we can stop the spread of this virus in June.”
“History has told us that these things are disappearing. And you must do something to make them disappear,” Benjamin said. “Even in 1918, 1919, people became infected, and tragically the world had to go through it. We achieved a kind of balance, gained immunity in droves, and it ended.”
“I think there is a huge potential for this pandemic to end in 2021, before the end of the year for sure, maybe even before the fall,” said Dr. Aaron Glatt, spokesman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America and chairman of the Department of Medicine at Mount Sinai in Nassau.
“But it certainly does not come to the point that if the vaccine is not distributed, or heaven forbid, the vaccine will not work in the future, will not work so well.”
Dr. Sunny Jha, an anesthesiologist at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, is also cautious.
“If we can scale the numbers up, if we can get rid of the hesitation, if we can remove misinformation, misinformation, I think I would be much more optimistic,” Jha said.
“But if you ask me today if I feel like we’re on the right track in the summer, based on what I see now, I do not think we will be there.”
“I’m cautiously optimistic, I guess,” he said. “I think we have the right mindset. I think if we remove the hesitation, we will be in better shape.”