COVID-19 cases are raging again in California and throughout the U.S., and public health experts and intensive care doctors are working hard to convince people that this holiday season is the most dangerous time since the start of the pandemic.
What appears to be driving the fastest spike in COVID-19 cases yet are small casual gatherings, especially indoor gatherings – like dinners or happy hours among two or three couples who believe they are a safe pod, or neighborhood game nights, even carpools.
Public health experts like Brad Pollock, chair of the UC Davis Health Department of Public Health Sciences, worry that too many people are discounting the real risks and have resumed gathering indoors – where the physical closeness and limited air flow greatly enhance transmission of the coronavirus.
“People have gotten this false idea that it’s not that big of a deal now,” Pollock said. “But the rate of infections is much worse than what we saw in April.”
One reason for the new surge is that many people have gotten tired of the precautions, he said, even though they’re presented with scientific evidence that shows wearing masks and keeping a 6-foot social distance slows infections and saves lives.
“If we can’t convince people to change their behavior, many, many more people are going to get infected,” Pollock said. “If this keeps up, we’re going to have deaths like we haven’t seen.”
— Christian Sandrock
With Thanksgiving and the holiday season coming, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a strong warning that people do not travel for Thanksgiving. And California issued a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. stay-at-home order for most counties, including Sacramento, that amounts to a curfew.
But Pollock worries that the messages aren’t getting through and that things will only get worse through the holidays.
“We need people to take this seriously,” Pollock said. “Do the right thing for your family and your friends. Don’t travel. Don’t visit mom and dad. Don’t even have small parties. With so much of the virus in the community, any gathering with people outside your household is extremely risky right now.”
UC Davis Health is prepared but other regions are overrun
Christian Sandrock, a UC Davis Health professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine, is seeing the increases at the UC Davis Medical Center and hearing from intensive care colleagues around the country.
“We’ve planned for surges at UC Davis Health, and we can expand our ICU beds if we need to,” Sandrock said. “I have to say, our people are working hard and they’re tired. But we can handle things and no one should hesitate to come to us if they need care of any kind.”
— Christian Sandrock
But hospitals and health care workers in some regions are not in the same good shape as UC Davis Health. Mark Ghaly, California Health and Human Services Secretary, said recently, “a number of states are making difficult decisions on how to allocate care.”
Sandrock said that’s what he’s seen and heard. “In places like the Upper Midwest,” he said, “the hospitals are filled to capacity and they can’t handle the needs of some patients.”
That’s why the warnings about travel are so important. Besides the possibility of contracting or spreading COVID-19 when you travel, areas where hospitals are swamped may not be able to handle even emergency needs of added patients.
“In some places, if you have a car crash or come in with a heart attack, they will have to make choices about how to care for you,” Sandrock said. “If this surge in cases continues – and right now it just keeps getting worse by the day – the quality of health care that people normally expect from U.S. hospitals is going to decline.”
The spread of COVID-19 is hitting everyone
Sacramento County reports that nearly 60% of COVID-19 cases are among people age 18-49, and the single largest age group is 20-29 years old. Pollock, who is also the chair of the University of California’s Public Health COVID-19 Working Group, said the Sacramento figures mirror case numbers around the state and the country.
“Young people are getting infected, and young people are spreading the virus,” Pollock said. “They tend to not get as sick, so many don’t show symptoms, then they go out and spread it more.”
Despite the general tendency for younger adults to weather the virus moderately well, that’s just a generality. Sandrock said the ICU is seeing patients of every age, including some who did not have pre-existing conditions.
“We’ve had some really young people who did not do well,” he said. “That part is hard on all of us. There are some predictors, like age, diabetes, obesity and heart trouble. But anyone can get very sick and anyone can die from COVID-19. We need people to understand that.”
The important message: Small slipups are dangerous
“There are too many places sending the wrong message,” Pollock said. “People see pro and college sports or ads for the holiday with big family gatherings. Plus, people have COVID fatigue, so many of them are taking those as signs that things are better and they can ease up.”
But things are not better. Things may be worse than at any time in the pandemic. Infections are climbing at record rates across the U.S.
“The rate of infection in California doubled in two weeks,” Pollock said. “We have never seen anything like that.”
Sandrock said the skyrocketing infection rate means two things: First, people have let down their guards. And second, the coronavirus has spread more than ever through the general population.
— Brad Pollock
“This is the hard thing to get across,” Sandrock said. “It’s simply more dangerous out there now. That’s why all these small gatherings are causing such a rise. So many more people are likely to be infected and spreading the virus.”
With Thanksgiving and the holidays around the corner, many people are assuming it’s safe to gather with people you know and love. But the result might be that you transmit COVID-19 to those people you know and love, Sandrock said.
“People think, ‘I haven’t seen my friend in seven months’ or ‘I haven’t seen my mother since April, I’ll just drop by,’” he said. “Those little slips matter much more now than they did in March because the rates are so high.”
If people don’t curtail the visits, Pollock said, expect an even greater surge about four weeks after Thanksgiving.
“I’m really worried that too many people are going to go ahead with family visits during Thanksgiving,” he said. “And I’m really worried what we’re going to see in the hospitals around Christmas.”