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US COVID cases falling, but hospitals brace for next wave

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A decline in COVID-19 cases across the United States over the past several weeks has given overwhelmed hospitals some relief

Posted: Oct 1, 2021 2:47 PM

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A decline in COVID-19 cases across the United States over the past several weeks has given overwhelmed hospitals some relief, but administrators are bracing for yet another possible surge as cold weather drives people indoors.

Health experts say the fourth wave of the pandemic has peaked overall in the U.S., particularly in the Deep South, where hospitals were stretched to the limit weeks ago. But many Northern states are still struggling with rising cases, and what’s ahead for winter is far less clear.

Unknowns include how flu season may strain already depleted hospital staffs and whether those who have refused to get vaccinated will change their minds.

An estimated 70 million eligible Americans remain unvaccinated, providing kindling for the highly contagious delta variant.

“If you’re not vaccinated or have protection from natural infection, this virus will find you," warned Dr. Mike Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

Nationwide, the number of people now in the hospital with COVID-19 has fallen to somewhere around 75,000 from over 93,000 in early September. New cases are on the downswing at about 112,000 per day on average, a drop of about one-third over the past 2 1/2 weeks.

Deaths, too, appear to be declining, averaging about 1,900 a day versus more than 2,000 about a week ago, though the U.S. closed in Friday on the heartbreaking milestone of 700,000 dead overall since the pandemic began.

The easing of the summer surge has been attributed to more mask wearing and more people getting vaccinated. The decrease in case numbers could also be due to the virus having burned through susceptible people and running out of fuel in some places.

In another promising development, Merck said Friday its experimental pill for people sick with COVID-19 reduced hospitalizations and deaths by half. If it wins authorization from regulators, it will be the first pill for treating COVID-19 — and an important, easy-to-use new weapon in the arsenal against the pandemic.

All treatments now authorized in the U.S. against the coronavirus require an IV or injection.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease specialist, warned on Friday that some may see the encouraging trends as a reason to remain unvaccinated.

“It’s good news we’re starting to see the curves” coming down, he said. “That is not an excuse to walk away from the issue of needing to get vaccinated.”

Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, began seeing a surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations in mid-July, and by the first week of August, the place was beyond capacity. It stopped elective surgeries and brought in military doctors and nurses to help care for patients.

With cases now down, the military team is scheduled to leave at the end of October.

Still, the hospital's chief medical officer, Dr. Catherine O’Neal, said the rate of hospitalizations isn’t decreasing as quickly as cases in the community because the delta variant is affecting more young people who are otherwise healthy and are living much longer in the intensive care unit on ventilators.

“It creates a lot of ICU patients that don’t move anywhere,” she said. And many of the patients aren’t going home at all. In the last few weeks, the hospital saw several days with more than five COVID-19 deaths daily, including one day when there were 10 deaths.

“We lost another dad in his 40s just a few days ago,” O'Neal said. “It’s continuing to happen. And that’s what the tragedy of COVID is."

As for where the outbreak goes from here, “I have to tell you, my crystal ball has broken multiple times in the last two years,” she said.

Dr. Sandra Kemmerly, system medical director for hospital quality at Ochsner Health in Louisiana, said this fourth surge of the pandemic has been harder. “It’s just frustrating for people to die of vaccine-preventable illnesses,” she said.

At the peak of this most recent wave, Ochsner hospitals had 1,074 COVID-19 patients on Aug. 9. That had dropped to 208 as of Thursday.

Other hospitals are seeing decreases as well. The University of Mississippi Medical Center had 146 hospitalized COVID-19 patients at its mid-August peak. That was was down to 39 on Friday. Lexington Medical Center in West Columbia, South Carolina, had more than 190 in early September but just 49 on Friday.

Like many other health professionals, Natalie Dean, a professor of biostatistics at Emory University, is taking a cautious view about the winter.

It is unclear if the coronavirus will take on the seasonal pattern of the flu, with predictable peaks in the winter as people gather indoors for the holidays. Simply because of the nation’s size and diversity, there will be places that have outbreaks and surges, she said.

What’s more, the uncertainties of human behavior complicate the picture. People react to risk by taking precautions, which slows viral transmission. Then, feeling safer, people mingle more freely, sparking a new wave of contagion.

“Infectious disease models are different from weather models,” Dean said. “A hurricane doesn’t change its course because of what the model said.”

One influential model, from the University of Washington, projects new cases will bump up again this fall, but vaccine protection and infection-induced immunity will prevent the virus from taking as many lives as it did last winter.

Still, the model predicts 93,000 more Americans will die by Jan. 1 for an overall death toll of 788,000 by that date. The model predicts that 44,000 of those deaths could be averted if almost everyone wore masks in public places.

“Mask wearing is already heading in the wrong direction,” said Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics sciences at the university. “We need to make sure we are ready for winter because our hospitals are exhausted.”

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 513622

Reported Deaths: 10264
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison34892556
DeSoto33234432
Hinds32638641
Jackson24854389
Rankin22507403
Lee16337242
Madison14922283
Jones14113247
Forrest13766259
Lauderdale12270324
Lowndes11305193
Lamar10659140
Pearl River9719244
Lafayette8846143
Hancock7836132
Washington7550169
Oktibbeha7210138
Monroe7010179
Pontotoc6990109
Warren6863178
Panola6759134
Neshoba6730210
Marshall6678141
Bolivar6445151
Union638297
Pike5928156
Alcorn5879107
Lincoln5530136
George510180
Prentiss503884
Tippah491482
Itawamba4844107
Scott477899
Adams4768125
Tate4756116
Leflore4729144
Copiah456495
Yazoo456491
Simpson4546117
Wayne443072
Covington433695
Sunflower4299106
Marion4277112
Coahoma4237109
Leake413990
Newton395781
Tishomingo383593
Grenada3777109
Stone365866
Jasper340666
Attala338290
Winston317892
Chickasaw315467
Clay312278
Clarke301195
Calhoun285049
Holmes271889
Smith269052
Yalobusha243947
Tallahatchie231553
Greene224749
Walthall221666
Lawrence218740
Perry213456
Amite209857
Webster205348
Noxubee188742
Montgomery181657
Carroll174541
Jefferson Davis173643
Tunica163239
Benton152939
Kemper145041
Choctaw136727
Claiborne134338
Humphreys131239
Franklin125529
Quitman107628
Wilkinson105939
Jefferson96934
Sharkey65221
Issaquena1957
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 845284

Reported Deaths: 16116
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1161552006
Mobile742111380
Madison53307732
Shelby38338368
Baldwin38085589
Tuscaloosa36022641
Montgomery34492781
Lee25562263
Calhoun22586518
Morgan22459406
Etowah20018517
Marshall18782316
Houston17731425
St. Clair16884358
Limestone16148218
Cullman16054303
Elmore15904294
Lauderdale14989306
Talladega14196299
DeKalb12972269
Walker12030380
Blount10717192
Autauga10517157
Jackson10162194
Coffee9417192
Colbert9342208
Dale9020191
Tallapoosa7256201
Russell708165
Chilton7018170
Escambia6957143
Covington6933195
Franklin6342108
Chambers5784142
Marion5406130
Dallas5285209
Pike5119109
Clarke484986
Lawrence4826129
Winston4780110
Geneva4642136
Bibb434094
Barbour369580
Butler3435100
Marengo342493
Monroe337266
Randolph334867
Pickens333188
Fayette330385
Henry320666
Hale318389
Cherokee317863
Crenshaw260477
Washington257052
Cleburne254460
Lamar251453
Clay250869
Macon244864
Conecuh192862
Coosa185047
Lowndes178168
Wilcox177438
Bullock152645
Perry141840
Sumter139241
Greene130245
Choctaw93228
Out of AL00
Unassigned00
Tupelo
Clear
38° wxIcon
Hi: 69° Lo: 32°
Feels Like: 34°
Columbus
Partly Cloudy
35° wxIcon
Hi: 70° Lo: 33°
Feels Like: 30°
Oxford
Clear
37° wxIcon
Hi: 67° Lo: 31°
Feels Like: 37°
Starkville
Partly Cloudy
32° wxIcon
Hi: 70° Lo: 32°
Feels Like: 27°
High pressure will continue to control our weather forecast for the next several days. This will keep our area filled with plenty of sunshine. We will see both daytime highs and overnight lows gradually get milder and warmer.
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