For the first time since the start of the pandemic, more than 100,000 new cases of COVID-19 were reported across the US today, according to data collected by the COVID Tracking Project. This new record comes amid a surge of cases and hospitalizations that started in early September — and shows no sign of slowing down.
It is exactly what the nation’s most prominent infectious disease specialist warned could happen during a second wave in cases this summer. “I would not be surprised if we go up to 100,000 [cases] a day if this does not turn around,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned the Senate on June 30.
Fauci repeated this dire prediction in an interview with the Washington Post last week, warning that the US would see COVID-19 deaths rise in the next few weeks. “We’re in for a whole lot of hurt,” he said.
The first COVID-19 surge, which hit hard in New York City, Detroit, and New Orleans, remains by far the deadliest. Not only were hospitals in those cities overwhelmed by an influx of patients in March and April, but they also didn’t know how best to treat them.
During those early months, severely ill patients were placed on a ventilator, an invasive and risky procedure that involved putting people in a medically induced coma. At that time, about a quarter of patients who were admitted to hospitals died of the disease. Now doctors are opting to provide oxygen, lay patients on their stomachs, and treat them with drugs, including the steroid dexamethasone. These improved treatments have caused death rates to decline for patients who are severely ill.
At the time Fauci made his warning about reaching 100,000 daily cases, the US was recording just over 40,000 new cases per day. That was during a second wave of COVID-19 cases that hit hardest across Sun Belt states, including Arizona and Texas. This surge took off in June when those states tried to reopen their economies after initial lockdowns.
After Fauci’s warning, many of the states driving the second surge reversed their reopening policies, placing new controls on risky environments like indoor bars and restaurants. But economic hardship and what some observers have called “COVID fatigue” have led to a relaxation of social distancing in recent weeks.
Now cases are rising in almost every state as winter approaches; some experts fear a lengthy and severe surge as people congregate indoors, where viral transmission is more likely. The coronavirus also spreads more easily in cold, dry air.
“I’m increasingly concerned that this will be a rather steep and long third wave,” Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist at the University of Arizona and a member of the Federation of American Scientists’ Coronavirus Task Force, told BuzzFeed News late last month.
It’s hard to compare the absolute size of the three coronavirus surges that have hit the US. One measure is the seven-day rolling average of new daily cases, which accounts for the fact that the reporting of cases tends to lag over the weekends, leading to a weekly pattern of rising and falling cases. It is currently running at about 89,000 and rising.
That is the highest it has ever been, but coronavirus testing has expanded since the start of the pandemic, meaning that many cases with mild or no symptoms are now being picked up that would earlier have been missed. However, testing doesn’t explain the current surge in cases, as President Donald Trump has falsely claimed, since cases are surging at a higher rate than tests.
A better measure of the severity of the three surges is the number of people currently in the hospital. By that measure, the first and second surges were similar, peaking at around 60,000 hospitalized patients across the nation. The current number is about 52,000, according to the COVID Tracking Project, with hospitalizations still increasing.
Jeremy Singer-Vine contributed reporting to this story.