As the United States approached the date commemorating the attack on Pearl Harbor, it found itself facing a new tragic event. In the five days leading up to December 7, 2020, the average number of daily deaths in America related to Covid-19 was 2,566. That surpassed the tragic loss of 2,403 American lives on that winter day 79 years ago.
What’s more, Covid-19 became the leading cause of death in the U.S. last week. And it is projected to get worse.
Health officials have long warned about a potential surge after family gatherings and travel during Thanksgiving. Essentially, because numbers had already been increasing moving into winter, that would put us with a “surge on top of a surge,” according to Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer and Dr. Anthony Fauci.
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But now with daily cases breaking records day after day — up 100% over the past two weeks in California — White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx and others are warning that we have not even seen the Thanksgiving surge yet.
“Every state across this country needs to increase their mitigation and every state needs to be critically informing their state population that the gatherings we saw on Thanksgiving will lead to a surge — it will happen this week and next week,” Birx told NBC’s Chuck Todd on Meet the Press Sunday.
California’s top health official, Dr. Mark Ghaly, basically agreed with Birx, though he allowed that the recent spike might be the beginning of Thanksgiving’s impact.
“We know that those cases that occurred around people’s dinner tables, or activities, travel around Thanksgiving are going to show up right about now,” said Ghaly. “Maybe the last couple days we’re seeing that, but we know we’ll be seeing that for many days to come. So we know this is the beginning, but we believe that the levels of transmission that we have seen so far are likely to continue going up some because of those activities around Thanksgiving.”
“Levels of transmission that we’re reporting so far,” predicted Ghaly, “are likely to go up because of those actions.”
California hit 30,000 daily new cases on Sunday. If the state were to see a surge on top of that surge, it would be devastating. A rise to say 40,000 cases in a day would mean over a quarter of a million new infections in a week. Conservatively, 10% of those people would end up in the hospital, which would mean 48,000 over a one-week period.
On Monday, California Governor Gavin Newsom reported that about 46,000 of the state’s extant 73,000 hospital beds are full. So a one-week Thanksgiving surge on top of the surge the state is currently seeing would overwhelm not just ICU beds, but the entire hospital system.
Beds can, of course, be added and Newsom announced plans to do just that on Monday. But there is little chance that effort could keep with the need for 4,000 additional beds a day.
That does not take into account the even more fragile ICU availability, of which Newsom said only 14% was available on Monday. Given that ICU and hospital numbers lag cases increases by 2-3 weeks, that ICU availability is likely to evaporate shortly.
This is the type of exponential nightmare health experts were warning about before Thanksgiving. They pleaded with Americans not to mix households or travel. As many in the country seem not to have heeded that warning, in the past week the predictions have grown even more grim.
“The next few months of the Covid-19 pandemic will be among “the most difficult in the public health history of this nation,” said Centers for Disease Control director Dr. Robert Redfield last week.
Asked about that assessment on Meet the Press, Birx took it even further.
“This is not just the worst public health event. This is the worst event that this country will face, not just from a public health side,” Birx told Chuck Todd. Given the country’s already Pearl Harbor-like daily losses, health officials’ grim warnings may not be hyperbolic.
“This fall/winter surge is combining everything that we saw in the spring with everything we saw in the summer — plus the fall surge going into a winter surge. I think that’s why Dr. Redfield made this absolute appeal to the American people,” Birx said.
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“It is frustrating because not only do we know what works, governors and mayors used those tools to stem the tide in the spring and the summer.” pic.twitter.com/38Dry1YFMg
— Meet the Press (@MeetThePress) December 6, 2020
And then she issued an additional warning about another potential surge on top of that from Thanksgiving.
“We cannot go into the holiday season — Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza — with the same kind of attitude that: ‘Those gatherings don’t apply to me,’” said Birx. “They apply to everyone, if you don’t want to lose your grandparents, your aunt.”
Health officials are not just holding their fingers into the wind and making predictions.
Every year, the regular flu season peaks in January and February following exactly the same schedule: Thanksgiving gatherings produce an initial surge in flu cases mid-December and then end-of-the-year holiday gatherings produce an even larger surge on top of that, with the peak of infections coming in late January to early February.
The same events and surge patterns — albeit on a massively larger scale — are seen to be playing out this year. And Covid vaccines — due to arrive in California in mid-December — will not prevent the rise in infections. The state is only getting about 350,000 doses on December 15, which will barely scratch the surface in a state of 40 million people where transmission is widespread.
“The vaccine is critical,” said Birx, “but it’s not going to save us from this current surge. Only we can save us from this current surge. And we know precisely what to do.”