The pandemic isn’t over. But new cases nationally have dropped below 75,000 a day, less than half the number in August. The United States will soon reopen land borders to vaccinated visitors and lift several international travel restrictions. More than 2 million people boarded flights last Sunday, not too far from pre-pandemic travel levels.
Kids, many of them newly vaccine-eligible, are back in school, with no massive surge of new coronavirus infections. Some older students, forced to mask, wear their face coverings as if they were chin guards.
The holidays are coming, and it won’t be like 2020 this time. It’s already obvious in the Halloween decorations, so over-the-top it looks like people are overcompensating for last year’s depressed trick-or-treating.
The pandemic appears to be winding down in the United States in a thousand subtle ways, but without any singular milestone, or a cymbal-crashing announcement of freedom from the virus.
“It doesn’t end. We just stop caring. Or we care a lot less,” Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said when asked when the pandemic would be over. “I think for most people, it just fades into the background of their lives.”
There could still be a winter surge — respiratory viruses thrive when people huddle in heated rooms. Some experts said they expect at least a modest uptick in infections over the next few weeks. Last year’s brutal winter wave of infections, which peaked in January, was just getting rolling at this point on the calendar. And although aggregate national numbers are lower, many cold-weather states, particularly in the Mountain West, have recently seen a rise in cases and hospitalizations. Alaska, slipping into its dark winter, has the highest infection rate in the nation.
Infectious-disease experts and Biden administration officials are not about to make any definitive predictions about when the pandemic might end. The virus, SARS-CoV-2, is slippery and opportunistic. It is still mutating. It has appeared to lose traction several times over the past year and a half, only to surge anew as it took advantage of more lax behavior and the contagiousness of mutated variants.
Even so, the trends are favorable. With most people vaccinated and infection rates dropping, the United States has entered a new phase of the pandemic in which people are adapting to the persistent presence of an endemic but usually nonlethal pathogen. They really have no choice. The virus isn’t going away.
“I think it’s becoming slowly part of the furniture,” said Andrew Noymer, a University of California at Irvine epidemiologist. He is still wearing masks in grocery stores, but no longer does he always don one of the highly protective N95 masks. “I don’t want to wear scuba gear everywhere I go. This is just part of the human environment now.”
That’s the view as well of Robert M. Wachter, chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. Wachter is hardly complacent about the virus: This summer, he took to social media to warn people they needed to renew their vigilance as the delta variant took hold and breakthrough infections became more common.
But he’s vaccinated and boosted now, and making his risk calculations under the assumption that our current environment is roughly as good as it’s going to get. And he doesn’t want to forgo travel and indoor dining the rest of his life.
“My feeling now is that we’re nearing a steady state where things might get a little better or worse — for the next few years. It’s not great, but it is what it is,” Wachter said in an email.
“There’s no cavalry coming, so decisions now should be predicated on this being something near steady state. To me, particularly once I got my booster, it prompts me to accept a bit more risk — mainly because if I’m not comfortable doing it now, I’m basically saying that I won’t do it for several years, and maybe forever.”
The uncertainties over what the virus will do in coming months present a messaging challenge for the Biden administration. The White House needs people to see the pandemic as a real and present threat to public health, one that requires continued precautions and universal vaccination. Officials simultaneously want to be perceived as being on top of the situation.
What they don’t want to do is get caught prematurely celebrating the positive trends of recent weeks. That happened earlier this year, when vaccine uptake was going well, infection numbers were dropping, and the Biden administration felt confident enough to project the Fourth of July as the start of a summer largely free of the virus.
“Today, we’re closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus,” Biden said in his July 4 remarks. “We’ve gained the upper hand against this virus. We can live our lives, our kids can go back to school, our economy is roaring back.”
The delta variant, detected but underestimated, blew the “summer of freedom” to smithereens. A July 4 party on the South Lawn of the White House became Biden’s “aircraft carrier moment,” in the words of Noymer, the UC-Irvine epidemiologist. Noymer was invoking the episode during the Iraq War when President George W. Bush flew to a Navy ship and spoke under a “Mission Accomplished” banner even though the war was, as it turned out, years and many thousands of casualties from being over.
A July 4 weekend outbreak among mostly vaccinated partygoers in Provincetown, Massachusetts, rattled the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and by the end of July, it had reimposed indoor mask guidance for the inoculated.
Officials are cautiously optimistic that the recent decline in cases and deaths could continue into the winter. But they also want the public to stay on task — taking precautions to limit viral spread. The vast majority of U.S. counties still have what the CDC classifies as high transmission.
More than 1,000 people are still dying of COVID-19 every day in America. Someday, the coronavirus may be viewed more like influenza, but experts say we’re not there yet.
“Don’t you think people in 1943 were tired of World War II?” said Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.
For the record, that war lasted until the late summer of 1945.
“Somehow, we have to keep convincing people that this is not something being imposed upon them by the government. It’s being imposed on them by the virus. And we don’t want the virus to win,” Collins said.
Administration officials and many disease experts stress that the return to normalcy hinges on when and how many of the more than 60 million eligible Americans get vaccinated.
“Delta may be our last major wave of infection as COVID transitions to a more endemic virus,” said Scott Gottlieb, a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner and Pfizer board member. “It’ll continue to evolve, probably requiring occasional updates to our vaccines every year or two, and it’s going to become a part of our lives like a second circulating flu. But we have the tools, if we use them right, and we have enough immunity already in our population now, to substantially reduce the death and severe disease it causes.”
Other experts are less confident the pandemic will fade away.
“I’m incredibly doubtful this is our last surge, and I think some geographic areas are going to be hit again,” said Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and a Biden transition pandemic adviser. “There’s this waning immunity issue. Is it or is it not occurring, and how much? Could we be back in the soup again when we’re in pretty darn good shape today? What will it be like in 12 months?”
Meanwhile, the American public, even while resuming many pre-pandemic activities, is keenly aware that normal life hasn’t returned. A recent Quinnipiac poll asked when things will be back to normal, and 81% of adults answered “about a year” or more, including 26 percent who answered “never.”
The Biden administration is well aware that the president’s approval ratings are in part tied to how Americans perceive his management of the pandemic. Biden’s approval ratings, according to Gallup, have fallen 14 percentage points since June, when delta hadn’t fully gained traction and the number of new daily cases was at a low point.
Biden’s health advisers have told him the most effective way to snuff out the pandemic is to continue to increase vaccinations. So the administration’s overriding focus during the next couple of months is to increase vaccinations, particularly through a rule Biden announced in September requiring businesses with more than 100 workers to mandate vaccinations among employees or have them face regular testing. That rule is expected to be finalized and implemented in coming weeks and affect about 100 million workers.
“We’re following the approach that has served us well from the beginning: keeping our eye on the ball, getting more people vaccinated,” said Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator. “The virus has proven to be unpredictable, and we cannot and will not let up.”
The trajectory of the pandemic is an urgent matter for people making holiday-season plans. Last year, millions of families chose not to gather as they traditionally would have. This year, they have a green light — or maybe a flashing yellow.
“I think people should feel comfortable in celebrating the holidays in a reasonably normal way, be they trick-or-treating for Halloween, you can feel the same way about Thanksgiving, you can feel the same way about Christmas,” Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser for the pandemic, said.
“We are still in a pandemic phase,” he said, but added, “We are inching more and more toward normal.”
As long as people are coming into hospitals with severe cases of COVID, the pandemic is all too real for front-line health-care workers. And it’s very real for the millions of parents with unvaccinated children, Nuzzo noted. Though that anxiety could ease, with Friday’s Food and Drug Administration announcement that the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine has been authorized for children 5 to 11 years old.
Economic disruptions have eased a bit, but there are huge supply-chain issues, jobs going unfilled, businesses barely staying afloat. Social and political divisions generated by the pandemic and the government response have calcified into anger, conspiracy theories and self-destructiveness.
Experts agree there is virtually no chance of eradicating the coronavirus. But the goal, Fauci said, is to get out of the “pandemic phase” and get to a “control phase.” That would probably mean fewer than 10,000 new cases daily, and that the vast majority of people do not face a significant risk from the virus even if they were to contract breakthrough infections.
Some models have predicted a steady decline in cases right through the winter, while others show a rise. The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation forecasts that infections will rise again in November and peak in midwinter, according to Ali Mokdad, epidemiologist at the institute. Any hint that cases are rising should trigger a rapid response, Mokdad said.
The infection fatality rate of the virus is much lower than when it first hit. That’s in large part because of vaccines, and to some hard-to-calculate degree because so many people have gotten sick, recovered and are walking around with antibodies to the virus. New therapeutics and better clinical practices also improve the chances a severe infection won’t be fatal.
“There is an end to it,” Fauci said of the pandemic. “I don’t think we’re going to eradicate the virus — we’ve only eradicated one virus in all of history, and that’s smallpox. The good news is we’re going in the right direction in the deflection of the curve.”
Last year, influential public health experts such as Fauci urged people to avoid holiday travel and indoor gatherings. This year is different: Fauci, for his part, hopes at least one of his three daughters will be able to make it home for Thanksgiving.
By Christmas, he hopes the entire family will be together again. He plans to make timpano, a decadent Italian dish shaped like a drum and popularized by Stanley Tucci in the 1996 film Big Night. It’s a Fauci family tradition.
Trick-or-treaters got some pleasant weather over the weekend, but the National Weather Service in Fort Worth forecasts the upcoming week will bring the first true winter cold front of the season, dropping temperatures down into the 40s and 50s locally.
NWS forecasts as of Sunday evening have the week starting off with a high of 72 degrees Monday, although temperatures are set to plummet in the days following. Tuesday has a projected high of 63, with Wednesday and Thursday coming in at 54. Weather service meteorologist Matt Stalley said the drops will result from the first major cold front of the season.
“This is the first time we’ve had a really good cold front like this with some temperatures in the 40s and 50s, which will stick around through the middle of the week,” Stalley said. “October was kind of abnormally warm for us for the most part. We’re headed more into the fall and winter feel.”
That cold front is likely to bring some rain as well, including a 20% chance Monday, 40% on Tuesday and rising to an 80% chance Wednesday. Stalley said the storms aren’t shaping up to be severe.
“We’ll see chances for mostly just some rain late Tuesday and into early Wednesday,” Stalley said. “It’s not going to be anything in the way of strong organized thunderstorms. This would be more of the post-cold front, light rain and drizzle type of rainfall we haven’t seen in a while.”
The lowest temperature of the week will come Thursday night, predicted at about 40 degrees. After that, North Texas will warm back up somewhat, with highs in the 60s Saturday and Sunday.
The winter months, typically dry, bring the largest concerns for fire conditions. They can bring drought concerns as well, especially coming off an October that was drier than usual.
“Parts of North Texas have crept back into abnormally dry conditions,” Stalley said. “They’re not quite classified as drought yet, but we did have a slightly drier-than-normal October which did not help out. Hopefully the rain coming up this week will help contribute to some above-average rainfall as we get started in November.”
Up-to-date forecasts for Denton and surrounding areas, as well as any weather alerts, can be found at forecast.weather.gov.
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American Airlines canceled more than 1,300 flights this weekend, citing bad weather and staffing issues, the latest service disruption to hit the skies as travel ramps back up.
More than 800 flights were canceled Sunday, according to flight tracking website FlightAware, nearly 30% of the airline’s total scheduled departures. A day earlier, more than 540 flights were canceled.
In a Saturday letter to employees, American Airlines Chief Operating Officer David Seymour said that “these few days to close out October will be challenging.”
Two days of severe winds in Dallas-Fort Worth last week reduced arrival capacity by more than half, driving a large number of cancellations at DFW International Airport, Seymour wrote.
“With additional weather throughout the system, our staffing begins to run tight as crew members end up out of their regular flight sequences,” he wrote in the letter. “To make sure we are taking care of our customers and providing scheduling certainty for our crews, we have adjusted our operation for the last few days this month by proactively canceling some flights.”
Earlier this month, Southwest Airlines faced multiple days of service disruptions. More than 2,000 flights were canceled, which the airline blamed on weather and air traffic control issues. As passengers look to schedule more trips 20 months into the pandemic, experts have warned that the choppy return to air travel may signal a messy holiday season ahead. Meanwhile, airlines are also preparing for a rush of passengers once the United States reopens its borders, starting Nov. 8, to vaccinated travelers from countries that have been subject to a travel ban.
There is a tight labor market affecting all economic sectors, said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at Teal Group, but he noted that the “difference with airlines however is that a record drop in demand has been followed by a record recovery.”
“That’s a recipe for trouble,” Aboulafia said in an email to The Post. “Hopefully, it will be resolved by the holidays, but I’m sure there will be more disruptions ahead.”
A spokesman for the union representing American Airlines pilots said Sunday that “management is delivering more trick than treat today.”
“Management is failing at the most fundamental part of running an airline. Connecting crews to the airplane,” Dennis Tajer, spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, said in an emailed statement, adding: “Mother nature generates a storm and then management fails to connect crews creating more storms days after.”
In the Saturday memo, Seymour said the airline planned to staff up in the coming months, with nearly 1,800 flight attendants returning from various leaves starting Monday and more returning Dec 1. The airline also said it plans to have more than 600 new flight attendant hires start by the end of December.
The airline also said most customers affected by the recent cancellations were rebooked.