Don’t give up now on your mask and social distancing precautions, as the worst of COVID is yet to come.
I am no scientist but I have been following this pandemic closely since the beginning and have translated what I learn into actionable steps for our traveling community. What I am seeing now is scary.
My Previous Predictions
For the past few months, I had been warning people not to travel for the holidays. Increased exposure from Thanksgiving would lead to a spike in COVID cases, which would run into a Christmas-caused spike which would run into a New Years Eve-caused spike. These spikes in cases have occurred and mathematically have already led to a spike in hospitalizations and a spike in deaths.
Still, I was hoping those spikes would end four weeks later and by late January we would see a drop in the curve, especially as the vaccines started kicking in. Based on this, we were suggesting no holiday travel but were hoping for improvement after that.
The New Virus Strains
That was all based on the existing strain rampaging through the US. Now there are not just one, but two new virus strains that have changed my prediction and lead me to believe the worst is yet to come.
Virus strains are the natural (for the virus) adaptation as it seeks to survive in more and more host bodies. This happens frequently. We have all heard about the new virus strain in the United Kingdom. There is a second, different strain that seems to have started in South Africa. Both strains seem not to be any deadlier but are much more infectious, with a recent study suggesting the British strain is 50 – 70% more contagious than the primary strain. Both have already spread to other countries. The UK strain is already in the United States and because of our poor ability to test for the genetic sequences of the new strains, you should assume it is in your community now.
What the New Strains Have Done
The new strains have pushed the infection rate in both the UK and South Africa to record highs. See this comparison chart, which I borrowed from the NY Times and which shows both countries in relation to some of their peers as a sort of control group.
You can see the infection rate per population is WAY higher in the two countries with the new, more infectious strains than in its neighboring peers which are not yet hotbeds for the new strain.
What That Means for Us
What does that mean for us? The UK government recently revealed that one in 50 people currently have COVID. If we extrapolate that to the US population of 331 million people, it would mean 6.6 million people might soon have the virus – at one time. We have only had 21 million to date, spread out over the last 10 months.
We are likely looking at huge infection rates and huge numbers of resulting deaths in the coming months, well past the current holiday surges. It also means the mask wearing and social distancing practices you have successfully employed to date, while still critical, might or might not continue to be as effective.
A Race Between the Virus and Vaccination
In the UK, they are in a frantic race to get as many people vaccinated as possible. As of the date of this writing, 1.3 million people or about 2% of the population had received a first shot. In the US, that number is 4.8 million or only 1.45%. We are losing the race. COVID is still winning.
Worse, COVID might be changing the rules. The South African variant is such that it is possible our current vaccine might be less effective on it than on the current strain prevalent here. But, for now, our clear job as a country is to fight this virus until we can win it with the vaccines.
What This Means For You
Now is not the time to lessen your mask wearing or lighten your social distancing. For travelers, be cautious about traveling during the first quarter of 2021.