Turning the corner on one year in the COVID-19 pandemic, many are asking: “When will COVID peak?” In this blog post, we discuss what top health experts, scientists, and the latest research says.
After an initial wave spread through the United States around spring 2020, followed by a second coronavirus peak later that summer, the United States has been facing a steep rise in COVID-19 cases again this winter. The first reported COVID-19 case in the United States occurred January 20, 2020, and one year later, as of January 25, 2021, the country has reported 25 million cases and nearly half a million deaths.
After the holiday season when many Americans traveled to reunite with their families, between 225,000 and 290,000 new cases were reported every day in the first few weeks of January, according to the John Hopkins University of Medicine Resource Center. These numbers surpass the peak of summer 2020, when around 65,000 new cases per day were reported on average for multiple weeks. So, is there an end in sight? Has COVID peaked yet? Here’s what we know.
Attempting to flatten the curve with widespread vaccination
All around the world, countries have worked tirelessly to “flatten the curve” of the COVID-19 pandemic. Flattening the curve entails reducing the number of new coronavirus cases from one day to the next, which is extremely important to help prevent an overwhelmed healthcare system and to ensure sufficient healthcare resources for those in need.
When looking at a trend line of total cases, a flattened curve should look how it sounds: flat. For example, if a country has fewer new coronavirus cases reported one day than what was reported the previous day, the curve would be flattening because the trend line is not rapidly increasing with new cases.
In this once-in-a-century pandemic, President Joe Biden promised help get at least 100 million COVID vaccine shots into the arms of the American people in the first 100 days.” This promise was made on December 8, 2020 at an event where he introduced the top members of his health team working to flatten the current COVID-19 peak.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of January 24, 2021, 41.4 million vaccine doses have been distributed to states, territories, and federal agencies; 18.5 million people have already received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine; and 3.2 million people are fully vaccinated.
Even though the efficient rate of the development, study, and approval of a COVID-19 vaccine has never been seen before, there’s still a long way to go to end the pandemic. While 1.3 million doses per day is more than we experienced during the first 9 months of the pandemic, the distribution of the vaccine is still logistically challenging, and a higher rate of administered coronavirus vaccines is needed to end the pandemic.
The lack of funding has been another challenge. According to Pew Trusts, public health departments are now struggling with the allocation of resources and the lack of sufficient funds to finance vaccination campaigns, testing centers, and contact tracing.
Additionally, states have been receiving confusing instructions and facing a lack of guidance about which groups of people should have priority for vaccination, how many vaccines they will be receiving, and if there’ll be enough supply, said Dr. Marcus Plescia, the Chief Medical Officer for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.
On December 3, 2020, the CDC recommended that health care staff, residents of long-term care facilities, front-line essential workers, and those over 75 years of age should be vaccinated first. On December 22, 2020, the CDC recommended that people over the age of 65, people between 16-64 years of age with underlying medical conditions, and essential workers such as those involved in transportation, food service, construction, law, public health, etc. be the next group to receive the virus.
While this may seem like an impossible feat, experts say that Biden’s goal, while aggressive, is obtainable. Claire Hannan, executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers said, “I think it’s an attainable goal. I think it’s going to be extremely challenging.”
As new strains of the coronavirus are introduced and spread in the United States, it is more important than ever to vaccinate the American public to not only prevent the spread of the strain discovered in December 2019, but also emerging strains, such as the new strains discovered in California, Colorado, Florida, Texas, et cetera.
Winter and a new COVID peak
After the decrease in new COVID-19 cases in late September and early October 2020 when cases in the United States lowered to around 35,000 new cases per day, health experts, scientists, and epidemiologists long predicted another coronavirus peak during the colder months. And they were right: more COVID-19 cases have been reported this winter than in the early peak of the pandemic. January 2021 has, on numerous days, reported nearly 250,000 new cases per day.
“People are not going to be outside as much as they were in the summer. And clearly, in many areas, there is a great resistance to masks and social distancing,” said Art Reingold, a professor of epidemiology at the University of California, Berkeley. “We certainly have a substantial risk that we’ll see resurgences even in cities and areas that have been doing a good job in the last couple of months.”
New COVID strains complicate the efforts to flatten the curve
While health officials focused their efforts on one strain of the COVID-19 virus for much of the pandemic, new strains have emerged thus making it more complicated to flatten the curve.
After many months of social distancing measures, face coverings, virtual schooling, and remote work to flatten the curve and bring down the COVID-19 peak, a new “super strain,” a variant first discovered in the United Kingdom in September 2020, called B.1.1.7,, is believed to have reached the U.S. in late December 2020.
The Dean of Brown School of Public Health, Ashish Jha, MD, estimated that new COVID-19 strains reaching the U.S. could cause 10 million new infections and 15,000 deaths by the end of February 2021. This means that unless the new presidential administration adjusts quickly to the pandemic response, we could be facing another peak, with even more hospitalizations and deaths.
Marc Lipsitch, Ph.D., a professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health told reporters, “It’s a big deal for a world that’s already stretched trying to keep in control the old variant… if we don’t change our control measures, once it becomes common, it will accelerate transmission considerably.”
As for now, scientists have identified three variants of the novel coronavirus: the U.K. variant (B.1.1.7), the South African variant (501 Y.V2), and the Brazilian variant (P.1). The UK variant (B.1.1.7) has been detected in many countries around the world, including the U.S. and Canada. While it is common for viruses to evolve/mutate over time (for example the B.1.1.7 strain has 23 known mutations that differentiate it from the original Wuhan strain), this variant can be more easily and quickly transmitted than other strains.
According to the CDC, as of January 27, 2021, 293 cases of this variant have been reported in the U.S. Cases related to different strains of COVID-19 have been found in multiple states including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin, Wyoming, and Utah—and counting.
The South African Variant (501Y.V2 or B.1.351) has multiple mutations in the spike protein. Currently, there’s no evidence that it causes an impact on disease severity. According to the CDC, this variant was first identified in Nelson Mandela Bay, South Africa, in samples dating back to the beginning of October 2020.
The Brazilian variant (P.1) was first reported in Japan during routine screening by the National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID) in four travelers coming from Brazil. A recent study suggests that some of the mutations of this variant can affect the antibodies (whether obtained through vaccination or a previous natural infection) ability to detect and neutralize the virus. This variant hasn’t yet been detected in the U.S.
As new record cases are reported across the United States, it’s important for all Americans to do what they can to prevent another COVID peak. Health care experts recommend the following steps to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and flatten the curve of the current peak.
- Avoid being too close to others. Maintain a distance of at least 6 feet at all times.
- Cover your nose and mouth with a face covering. This helps reduce the risk of spreading the virus by airborne transmission to or from those around you.
- Wash your hands frequently. Use soap and warm water for 20 seconds. If not available, use a hand sanitizer that contains 60% alcohol or more.
- Stay away from crowded indoor spaces. Being outdoors can reduce the risk of exposure, but it is still important to socially distance and avoid large gatherings. If you are indoors, try to ensure your space is highly ventilated.
- Stay at home as much as possible. If you feel sick, isolate yourself from others, including those in your household.
- Clean and disinfect regularly. Frequently touched surfaces are especially important to clean and disinfect.
- Get tested. Widespread COVID testing helps health officials monitor and reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Health experts have consistently claimed that testing is still critical to stopping the spread of the novel coronavirus and have recommended that testing efforts should increase across the country. As daily cases increase, there could be more overwhelmed hospitals, less hospital resources, and a national shortage of staff and medical equipment to treat patients.
Schedule a COVID-19 test today to support your health and the health of your local community as we all work together to end the COVID-19 pandemic.