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Disaster Zone: The Next Phase of the Pandemic

February 11, 2021  by  Eric Holdeman
Category:  Emergency Management COVID-19 Guest Author

Disaster Zone: The Next Phase of the Pandemic

The immediate future is clear indeed. As I write this on February 7, or Super Bowl Sunday, we know what is coming next in the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. What will follow is very predictable, since we’ve been through this before — but, with a few twists and turns on the road ahead.

 Beyond two months from now it is hard to predict, but I see a bumpy road in the near future, so fasten your seatbelts as individuals, families, and governments.

Current Status

We saw a huge surge in coronavirus cases stemming from the holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s). This holiday surge did not come from huge gatherings of people, but instead the draw of family and friends getting together after social distancing for the preceding 8-9 months. The air travel that necessitated getting from here to there was also a contributing factor in the surge of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. The current death toll in the United States is at 461,000. Given that we have 20 more days left in this month, hitting 500,000 dead before March is highly likely.

The good news is that cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are all trending down — for now.

The Immediate Future

As Americans, we are a very optimistic people. While this is good on many fronts, it clouds our perception of risk, be it due to flooding, earthquakes, or pandemics. Many tens of thousands of people who got together over the holidays dodged a bullet, suffering no consequences. Their luck will eventually run out. 

My prediction is that this “success” has clouded the perception of the risk of getting together for family Super Bowl gatherings, since there is a viewpoint by many that you can’t get COVID-19 from someone you know. 

The new wildcard in play right now are the two coronavirus variants spreading throughout the United States. On Sunday, February 7, the Washington Post newspaper reported on one of these variants, noting:

It is estimated that the coronavirus variant that shut down much of Britain is spreading rapidly across the USA, outcompeting other mutant strains and doubling its prevalence among confirmed infections every week and a half, according to new research made public today. It is estimated that this variant will be the dominant strain of the virus by the end of March.

This next prediction of mine is simple math, based on our COVID pandemic history. The infection rate will begin to rise dramatically two weeks from today, roughly around February 22. Then, two weeks from that date, around March 11, we will see hospitalizations begin to rise. The increase in deaths is harder to predict due to treatments, but another two weeks after that date and the death rate will also surge.

We Are In a Race

Right now, we as a nation are in a race. This race pits the two new variants of the coronavirus against our national effort to vaccinate the public. While the fable of the “tortoise and the hare” gives the advantage to the tortoise due to slow persistence, in this case, the hare is the virus and it has proven itself to be way faster. It is also not taking breaks to while away its time, as the hare did in the fable.

Some have called on our national health system to drop the two-shot regime of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and just go with one option in order to vaccinate more people faster. Based on reading and listening to people in authority speak about this concept, I don’t think that will happen. They are wedded to the science, which is not a bad thing, so we are on the course we are on — with no shortcuts.

The current estimate of the one-shot efficacy of the three vaccines, two available now and the Johnson & Johnson variation, which is expected to be approved soon, is shown below. Note the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a one-dose vaccination.

One-Shot Efficacy

  • Moderna: 80% effective
  • Pfizer: 52% effective
  • Johnson & Johnson: 72% effective

What’s Around the Corner?

Infections, hospitalizations, and deaths will peak again in the latter part of March and April due to the Super Bowl surge and the spreading nature of the variant viruses. Recall that Britain went back into an almost total lockdown after the Christmas holidays due to the spread of the variant in their nation.

Due to our state- and locally focused public health system it is unlikely that a national lockdown will occur. Additionally, even though the emergency powers of some governors includes public health police authority, this is being questioned by multiple legislatures around the nation that are actively seeking to curb those emergency authorities.

The original projection for the United States — that the majority of the American public that wants to get vaccinated can get vaccinated — has slowly moved from May, to June, to July, and I expect it will be even later into September.

Then there are those twists and turns in our future. For instance, there can be more virus variants in the months ahead. The economic impacts to small businesses will not be over immediately and will continue well into 2021 and even 2022. Here, regionally, we know that the Alaskan cruise season is already cancelled for the summer of 2021 and with it the $7 billion in economic punch that those sailings provided businesses and governments.

While sometimes it seems that everything is spinning out of control, the one thing each of us can do as an individual is to wear a mask in public, socially distance, and wash your hands. We have control of our own actions, and, collectively, this can make a significant difference in the progress of the pandemic. 

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Eric Holdeman

Eric is a nationally known emergency manager and consultant. He has 28 years of emergency management experience, having served at the federal, state (Washington), and local government (King County) level, as well as in the nonprofit sector. He is the Principal for Eric Holdeman and Associates and serves the Director for the Center for Regional Disaster Resilience, which is part of the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER).

He is a prolific writer, authoring numerous articles for professional journals and opinion pieces for local, regional and national newspapers including the Washington Post. He is a Senior Fellow and contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine, where he blogs about emergency management and homeland security at Eric also hosts the Disaster Zone podcast.

Eric is writing as a guest author. The views expressed in guest columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.



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