Not good, but not completely surprising, either:
Houston-area COVID-19 numbers, which declined significantly in late summer, are creeping up again, a concern given the spike predicted when the weather turns colder and people gather indoors for the holidays.
The increases aren’t near the level being seen in many parts of the state, nation and globe, but the number of new cases and hospitalizations and the positive test rate and disease spread the last three weeks represent a turn for the worse after a period that gave many hope the worst might be over.
“The trends are going in the wrong direction,” said William McKeon, president of the Texas Medical Center. “You hate to see the sacrifices we made and the successes we achieved lost because people let their guard down.”
Dr. Marc Boom, president of Houston Methodist, said, “We’ve definitely turned the wrong corner. The numbers aren’t growing in an out-of-control fashion, but there’s no doubt we’re in a significant growth trend that we need to stop before the holiday season.”
Though experts acknowledged it’s difficult to pinpoint the causes of the uptick, many used the same phrase to describe one big culprit: COVID fatigue. Seven months of staying indoors, unable to resume everyday lives, has left a weary public, many increasingly willing to risk get-togethers, they say. In a daily medical center Zoom call, most of the leaders report they routinely see gatherings of people not wearing masks, said McKeon.
COVID fatigue is absolutely a real thing. Humans, after all, are social animals, and we're all weary of month after month of social distancing measures and other restrictions that are intended to stop the spread of the Coronavirus but are having overwhelmingly negative effects on our lives and livelihoods. We want this to be over. We want to move on.
To be sure, my wife and I are among those who are experiencing COVID fatigue, and it's resulted in our having engaged in behaviors that could be considered risky: having our wedding and going on a honeymoon, attending football games, even dining out at local restaurants on occasion. While we try to be careful - we wear our masks, we maintain social distance, and we obsessively slather on the hand sanitizer - we know we're still not being nearly as safe as we would be if we remained inside our apartment. And that's the thing: we don't want to be locked in our apartment all the time. We want to live a somewhat-normal life.
The problem is, the Coronavirus doesn't care what any of us want. All it cares about is finding hosts to infect so that it can replicate. And when COVID fatigue sets in and people begin taking more risks or otherwise become lax in taking precautions, opportunities for the virus to spread increase.
This already happened earlier this summer, when people emerged from lockdown eager to resume their normal activities and flocked to parties, beaches and bars. This resulted in a surge of COVID cases here in Houston that overwhelmed hospitals. After local elected officials and health experts pleaded with the public to take the threat seriously and implemented new restrictions, the number of cases began to decrease. Now, cases are beginning to increase once again, as this graph from covidactnow.org indicates:
|Harris County COVID-19 case trend as of 10/27/2020. Sources: covidactnow.org|
To be sure, the increase in cases isn't as bad here in Houston as they are in other parts of the state
, or world
, but the worst nevertheless may be yet to come:
The increase comes as experts predict a major U.S. surge expected to begin around Thanksgiving, a spike one expert recently said will produce “the darkest weeks of the entire pandemic.” Houston infectious disease specialist Peter Hotez said “that train is already rolling in the upper Midwest and should arrive in the Northeast in a few weeks.”
Hotez said Houston’s numbers will go up — “I’m pretty confident of that” — but added that North Texas likely will be hit much harder.
The surge is expected because winter will drive people indoors, particularly for the holidays, and because coronaviruses — including this one, according to a recent journal article — survive best in the cold weather.
(Halloween, in fact, is going to be a massive superspreader event: it's on a Saturday, under a full moon, kids will trick-or-treat no matter what authorities decree, and people who choose to go out will get an extra hour to party due to the end of Daylight Saving Time.)
“We’ve worked hard to bring our numbers down, but we haven’t been able to crush the virus,” said Dr. Eric Boerwinkle, dean of the UTHealth School of Public Health. “When you see numbers creeping up like they are now is when people need to be most vigilant, practice social distance, wear face masks, wash their hands. Now is not the time to let our guard down.”
We're not done with this, nor will we be until a vaccine becomes widely available (and that's many months away). I know it sucks, but be patient and stay safe.
The Texas Medical Center's daily COVID-19 updates
are easy to understand and are a useful way to track the local progress of the pandemic.