A Sign of Just How Terrible the Winter’s Surge Was

Workers take down an overflow patient care tent
Mario Tama / Getty

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Yesterday, hospitalizations in the United States fell below 60,000 for the first time since November 9, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic. This milestone is not just another round number. In the spring and summer waves, hospitalizations peaked at just fewer than 60,000 both times.

In other words, for the first time in three months, the spread of COVID-19 has receded enough that it now matches the worst of the early pandemic. As welcome as this change might be—it’s a relatively rapid decline from the peak of 132,474 hospitalizations on January 6—it also indicates how far we have to go.

During the winter surge, every U.S. region hit a peak almost simultaneously, whereas the spring and summer peaks represented increases in just two regions. The decline has been rapid for similar reasons: It’s happening everywhere. By the COVID Tracking Project’s conservative definition of falling, meaning down more than 10 percent from the prior week, hospitalizations in 41 states are falling while those in nine states and the District of Columbia are staying the same. Only hospitalizations in South Dakota are increasing, and in raw numbers it’s from 82 patients to 95.

The death toll has finally caught up to this trend as well. On February 18, the seven-day average of deaths was 1,998, the first time that number fell below 2,000 since December 4, and down from 3,302 on January 26.

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What the next months will bring is unclear. James Hamblin predicts “a quite possibly wonderful summer,” noting a shift to cautious optimism among scientists and researchers who previously hadn’t expected a return to normal until late summer or early fall. Vaccination is one reason; its effects seem to be showing up already in nursing homes. The prevalence of the coronavirus, reflected by the awful numbers of the winter surge, may have also led to “some protective effects of herd immunity,” Hamblin writes—a theory echoed by the epidemiologist Trevor Bedford. The biostatistician Natalie Dean adds that “policy and individual-level behavior change” in response to the surge may have played a role, and evidence in the testing data supports that.

The unpredictable prevalence of the more infectious B.1.1.7 variant could slow the pandemic’s decline and push back that wonderful summer if vaccinations don’t continue apace. In the bigger picture, as Hamblin writes, the virus still has a chance to evolve beyond the reach of vaccines, as long as unvaccinated populations can offer the virus a harbor. Truly putting COVID-19 behind us will require solutions that are global in scale.