The Atlantic Daily: Three Unknowns Will Define This Pandemic Winter

How intense will the pandemic be this winter? Here are the variables to watch. Also: Self-care only goes so far.

This time last year, experts were all but certain that we were headed for an ugly surge of COVID-19 cases—which proved true. A year later, the future is much foggier. U.S. cases are once again on the rise, but it’s hard to know what lies ahead.

Three as-yet unanswered questions will inform COVID-19’s trajectory in the country this winter, my colleague Sarah Zhang explains in her latest story. Here’s what we know right now.

1. How much immunity do we have?

Fifty-nine percent of the population is fully vaccinated, and at least 14 percent of Americans have come down with COVID-19. What we don’t know is the overlap, Sarah explains: “This is the key number that will determine the strength of our immunity wall this winter, but it’s impossible to pin down with the data we have.”

2. Will new variants emerge?

Delta caught us by surprise this summer. Likewise, “a new variant could change the pandemic trajectory again this winter,” Sarah points out, although “it’s not likely to reset the pandemic clock back to March 2020.” A new iteration of the virus may evade some people’s protections, causing breakthroughs, but “our immune systems won’t be totally fooled.”

3. How will people spread the virus?

“The coronavirus doesn’t hop on planes, drive across state lines, or attend holiday parties,” she writes. “We do.” And people’s behavior is difficult to predict, especially when putting together scientific models.

Read Sarah’s report.  

Still have questions? Send them our way.

A black and white photo of a masked woman wearing black. She is surrounded by masked reporters holding phones and notebooks.
(Drew Angerer / Getty)

The news in three sentences:

(1) Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt halted the execution of Julius Jones just hours before it was scheduled to be carried out. (2) Belarus cleared migrant camps at its border with Poland following tensions there. (3) The House of Representatives is maybe, finally, actually going to vote on President Joe Biden’s spending bill (“the Big Bill”).

Today’s Atlantic-approved activity:

Learn the limits of personal wellness. “Self-care alone won’t fulfill people’s psychological needs as we rebound from the pandemic,” Jamil Zaki argues.

A break from the news:

Shallow Hal, which turns 20 this year, is “a fat joke with a 114-minute run time.