The United States may be leading the world in vaccination rates, but escalating COVID-19 figures indicate the country may be headed for its fourth and most deadliest surge yet.
Cases are once again surging in a numbers of states, which are now battling the deadlier and more transmissible B117, or UK, variant.
Vaccine complacency and virus fatigue is also at play, with the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky issuing a plea to the nation to “just please hold on a little while longer”.
“Now is one of those times when I have to share the truth, and I have to hope and trust you will listen. I’m going to pause here. I’m going to lose the script, and I’m going to reflect on the recurring feeling I have of impending doom,” she said, during a virtual White House briefing on Monday.
“We have so much to look forward to, so much promise and potential of where we are and so much reason for hope. But right now, I’m scared.”
Is the United States in the early stages of a fourth wave?
Her fear over what The Atlantic has termed as the US’s “tornado phase” is justified.
As of April 2, COVID-19 figures have increased in 25 states, with a mere five states reporting declining rates. More alarmingly, on the whole, the US has reported an increase of 63,000 new daily cases, which is a 17 per cent increase from the week before.
The mid-western state of Michigan, where cases rose a 52 per cent cases in the past week, is unenviably leading the charge, with cirus rates also climbing in New York, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Indiana.
Despite the US’ aggressive vaccine roll, experts have been weary of overstating the benefits of the jab.
Harvard-educated epidemiologist Dr Eric Feigl-Ding warned US officials of easing restrictions too soon. Dr Feigl-Ding used Chile as an example, where the government have implemented another strict lockdown in their capital city of Santiago, despite administering the jab to a third of its population.
“Chile made a critical mistake — its government eased restrictions on travel, business and schools much too early, creating a false sense of confidence that pandemic was over. This always been my fear,” he tweeted.
He also criticised certain state governments of creating “the sense the pandemic is basically over,” adding that that was his “biggest fear”.
“Basically this euphoria and false sense of success will cause people to potentially become EVEN MORE RECKLESS and cavalier in their personal behaviours — which may lead people to spread the virus more among those unvaccinated & recently vaccinated with incomplete protection yet,” he wrote.
This comes as seven state governors (Arkansas, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Texas and Wyoming) have removed mask mandates, despite the several health experts stressing that they must still be used. In New York, baseball fans have also been allowed back to Yankee Stadium at a 20 per cent capacity, with Texas Rangers allowing full stadium capacity of 40,300 people for the first game of the season on April 1.
Although this decision was blasted by US President Joe Biden, the relaxed restriction remains.
“Well, that’s a decision they made. I think it’s a mistake,” Mr Biden told ESPN. “They should listen to Dr. [Anthony] Fauci, the scientists and the experts. But I think it’s not responsible.”
A country divided
While the US’ potential fourth surge may result in less mortalities, the perfect storm, or tornado, of a deadlier and more infectious variant and relaxed restrictions could prove deadlier for certain communities.
Current rates suggest 73 per cent of senior people have been given at least one dose, with priority also given to those with underlying health conditions, however “millions of younger Americans with high-risk medical conditions” have yet to receive the jab, reports US publication, Axios.
An increased spread could also see the virus mutate, creating deadlier and more infectious strains too, which “will likely be less susceptible to our existing vaccines”.
Certain race and low socio-economic groups will also be unevenly affected.
In May 2020, the Color of coronavirus report from the APM Research Lab showed that Black Americans were dying of COVID-19 at three times the rate of white Americans. A racial breakdown of virus deaths in New York City from April, also reported that eight out of ten zip codes with the highest death rates had majority black or Latino populations.
Low socio-economic communities, and those with high Native American and Pacific Islander populations have also been more heavily impacted by the pandemic.
Writing for The Atlantic, co-founder of the COVID Tracking Project, Alexis C. Madrigal says that while the pandemic “will disappear” for some communities, the fourth wave could destroy others.
“Some communities won’t see the storm, others will be well fortified against disaster, and the most at-risk places will be crushed,” he writes.
“The pandemic is or will soon be over for a lot of people in well-resourced, heavily vaccinated communities. In places where vaccination rates are low and risk remains high, more people will join the 550,000 who have already died.”
However, as the country sits on a knife’s edge, faced with the very possible reality of a fourth wave and Dr Walensky’s “impending doom,” one thing is clear: the US’ next steps will be vital.