U.S. leaders need to make difficult decisions as we enter a new phase of this pandemic. Americans have COVID-19 fatigue, are unemployed, and are physically and mentally exhausted. As human beings, we want to be together with our families and loved ones, but cannot.
According to the latest CDC figures, the nation has surpassed 19 million cases of COVID-19 and 334,000 deaths. Even more concerning is the pace at which cases are accelerating. From the start of November, the time it takes for every 1 million new cases has decreased from 3 weeks to 2 weeks, and then to 10 days, 7 days, and now down to every 4 or 5 days. With TSA reporting record-breaking pandemic travel for the recent holidays a further rise in cases can be expected in the next 2 to 3 weeks.
It should be clear to everyone that widespread access to a vaccine will not occur until well into 2021, so we need to do as much as possible to prevent stressing our healthcare systems to a point of collapse.
Across the nation, new daily cases are increasing in more than 30 states, and over 120,000 people are currently hospitalized due to COVID-19, according to the COVID Tracking Project. Several states are setting up emergency field hospitals as New York City did back during the first wave of the pandemic.
The constant back and forth of government decision-making can be very frustrating to the public. For example, in New York City, even though public schools shut down on Nov. 18 amid rising positivity rates, Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) reopened them in phases starting Dec. 7, before schools then closed again for the holidays. It probably would have been a wiser decision to just continue remote learning until 2021. Even though remote learning can be difficult for some parents, it would have been a more consistent response and avoided all the back and forth, which can be a logistical nightmare for parents.
From a public health perspective, we need to stress that even though the FDA authorized Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines, it does not mean we can let our guard down, as most of the public will not have access to a vaccine until mid-2021. As a result, the public needs to continue heeding guidelines on wearing face coverings, keeping physical distance, and frequently washing hands or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
We must do our best to keep the “public” in public health. Due to the incubation period of this virus, what we do (or fail to do) now will show its effects 2 to 3 weeks later. Therefore, we must be proactive, not reactive, in our decisions and planning to decrease spread of the virus until we have widespread vaccine access. We owe it to the 344,000 individuals who have died already in the U.S.
As we come to the end of 2020, we must remember that our actions now will protect us down the road until we eventually get to the end of this very long tunnel.
George W. Contreras, MPH, is assistant director of the Center for Disaster Medicine at New York Medical College and a paramedic in New York City.