By Jacob Derin
The U.S. is in for a tough winter, and I’m not exactly sure that people understand what that means. As hospitals reach capacity, we may soon hit the point at which they can longer cope with a new surge of COVID-19 cases.
We’ve been hearing for months the same, tired refrains from health officials: “Wear your mask; stay six feet apart; don’t go to large gatherings,” but I don’t think people fully understand why these messages are so crucial.
Young people, correctly understanding the data on how the SARS-COV2 virus affects them, see that it is unlikely to kill them (although it is hardly benign for them either). And it is difficult, when the scale of the devastation caused by COVID-19 is so vast, for any individual to understand how their actions contribute to it. But they do. Many journalists and doctors out there will happily explain exponential spread to you and how even asymptomatic carriers can bring about the deaths of people they’ve never met.
It’s about to get worse.
Once we enter the winter months, a few events start to happen, which are dangerous from that perspective. People start staying inside more, and the sun is out less. The longer people spend in confined spaces, the easier it will be to catch an airborne virus. And the less the sun is out, the less chance it has to sterilize surfaces that people might touch. There’s also some reason to think that it’s relevant that the humidity will be lower.
Every day for the past week, the U.S. has added more than 150,000 COVID-19 cases to its confirmed total. This is how we’re going into the winter months. That number, the “rate of growth,” will start to go up as those people infect multiple other people. That’s how exponential growth works.
But, I want to focus your attention on what I think is the more imminent and dangerous consequence of the recent explosion of COVID cases: the impact on our hospitals.
The more infections there are the more people end up in the hospital. That’s a pretty simple cause-and-effect relationship that I think we all understand. But it’s worth taking a moment to really think about what that means. There are only so many beds, doctors and nurses in U.S. hospitals. There are only so many drugs, testing reagents and truck drivers to bring them to the right places, and so on. As big as it is, the U.S. healthcare system has its limits. And we’re reaching them.
What happens when we run out of those things? This is what doctors and epidemiologists have been terrified of from the start of the pandemic.
Hospitals will have to start rationing care, only giving beds to the sickest people. That means turning away people who might well end up dying of COVID-19. But they might also end up dying of something else: a drug overdose, a heart attack, an injury, or any one of a thousand other things.
And, if things continue to get worse, the hospitals stop working. Yes, that can happen. If enough nurses and doctors get sick and enough hospital resources are depleted, then the normal operating mechanisms cease to exist.
I’m not sure if raising the specter of this grim possibility has succeeded in frightening you, but if it hasn’t, try this: picture it again.