The US has reached another potential turning point in the pandemic. But this is also a time when the Covid-19 data is extremely difficult to read. In today’s newsletter, I’ll try to make sense of it, using four charts created by my colleague Ashley Wu.
On the one hand, the country may be on the brink of a salutary cycle of declining cases. While scientists don’t understand why, Covid has often followed a two-month cycle: When cases start to increase in a country, they often do so about two months before they start to decrease. In the US, the Delta wave started in early July, just over two months ago.
On the other hand, schools across the country have recently reopened and some other activities – such as busy college football games and Broadway plays – have started again. All this socializing has led some epidemiologists to predict that the number of cases could increase this month.
At the moment it is difficult to figure out what is happening from the widely viewed charts that track daily Covid cases. Those charts have been messy lately because of Labor Day. With test centers and labs closed for the holiday weekend, cases artificially collapsed over the long weekend, before increasing — also artificially — in the days after. As a result, the seven-day average of Covid cases (the measure many trackers mark) has been skewed for much of this month.
We’ve tried to smooth out the fluctuations by reassigning some of the positive tests from the day after Labor Day to the holiday itself. We kept the total number of confirmed cases the same, but imagined they followed a more normal weekly pattern (which is probably closer to reality).
The result is shown in the dotted line below:
Our custom line doesn’t completely eliminate the Labor Day noise, but it does provide a clearer picture. And that image is encouraging. The number of new cases has fallen by more than 10 percent since September 1.
The state-by-state data fits that trend. In some states where the Delta Wave struck early, such as California, Florida and Missouri, cases have been declining for some time. In states where Delta arrived later, such as Colorado and Massachusetts, the wave is beginning to show signs of cresting.
The data on hospital admissions, which may be more reliable than the case data, are also consistent with this. The seven-day average of the number of Americans hospitalized peaked on Sept. 3 and has since fallen about 7 percent:
The most likely scenario seems to be that the US Delta Wave has peaked after just over two months of rising cases and hospitalizations. (Here’s The Morning’s longer explanation of the mysterious two-month cycle of Covid.)
Worse than Europe
Still, there are two important caveats to the encouraging trends.
First, the current Covid situation remains dire as many of the US hospitals in the Mountain West, Southeast and Appalachia are filled with Covid patients. Doctors and nurses are overwhelmed and exhausted. The number of Covid deaths nationwide – which is typically a few weeks behind trends in new cases – has continued to rise in recent times. About 2,000 Americans die every day.
The situation here is worse than in almost any other country. The US death rate in the past two weeks, adjusted for population, is more than twice that of Great Britain, more than seven times that of Canada and more than 10 times that of Germany. If Mississippi were its own country, it would have one of the world’s worst total death tolls per capita, CNN’s Jake Tapper noted yesterday.
Why? One reason is that the US – after getting off to a great start – is now following many of these countries in terms of Covid vaccination. Nearly one in four American adults has still not received an injection. The unvaccinated stay disproportionate people without college degrees and Republican voters.
The vaccines radically reduce the risk of serious Covid disease and deaths are predominantly among the unvaccinated. Yet many people have chosen to leave themselves unprotected. It’s a modern day tragedy caused by… the widespread mistrust that Americans feel towards society’s most important institutions and aggravated by online disinformation.
The second caveat is that the encouraging trends of recent weeks are not guaranteed to continue.
The two-month cycle of Covid is not a scientific law. There have been exceptions and there will be more. Perhaps those overcrowded football matches are causing new outbreaks that are not yet visible in the data. Or perhaps the onset of colder weather or a mysterious force will cause the number of cases to rise again in the coming weeks. The pandemic has surprised people, often for the worse, for nearly two years. As my colleague Apoorva Mandavilli has written, Covid has given everyone a crash course in scientific uncertainty.
For now, the best summary may be that Covid is both an unnecessarily severe crisis in the US and one that seems to be slowly getting better. If recent history repeats itself — a big if — U.S. cases will continue to decline in the early fall.
More about the virus:
THE LAST NEWS
‘The power of the dog’ and more
Founded in 1976, the Toronto International Film Festival has a democratic spirit. It is intended for the general public, while festivals such as Cannes are by invitation only. “It’s just a torrent of movies – good, bad and indifferent,” writes Manohla Dargis, a Times film critic who attended this year’s Toronto festival, which ended this weekend.
Highlights included”To flee,” a beautifully animated documentary about an Afghan refugee; “Hold your fire”, a mouth-dropper about a decades-old US hostage crisis; Benedict Cumberbatch as a 1920s Montana cowboy in “The power of the dog”; and “become a Cousteau”, about the French underwater explorer.
Manohla’s favorite film of the festival, “The Tsugua Diaries”, was recorded during the pandemic and is about “friendship and the deep, life-sustaining joys of being with other people.” — Sanam Yar, a morning writer
PLAY, WATCH, EAT
What to cook?
The pangram of Friday’s Spelling Bee was to wear. Here’s today’s puzzle – or you can play online.
Here’s today’s mini crossword and a clue: brave mind (five letters).
If you’re in the mood to play more, you’ll find all our games here.
Thank you for spending part of your morning at The Times. I see you tomorrow. — David
PS Amy Fiscus, the National Security Editor of The Times, joins The Morning’s team and will oversee the launch of our weekend editions.