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As experts feared would happen, COVID-19 deaths in the US have started to rise, following a surge in newly diagnosed cases beginning in the middle of June.
The new spikes in deaths are largest in the two most populous states, California and Texas. And while infectious disease specialists are hopeful that the number of deaths won’t grow to match the carnage seen in New York State back in April, where the death toll peaked at around 1,000 per day, it’s unclear how quickly deaths may rise in the worst affected states in the coming weeks.
“I am worried, given how rapidly things are accelerating here,” Peter Hotez, a vaccine researcher at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, told BuzzFeed News. Ominously, the Texas Tribune reported on Saturday that some counties in the state have requested refrigerated trucks, anticipating that morgues may soon be filled to capacity.
The number of new COVID-19 cases began surging in June, especially in the South and West, weeks after many states started to reopen their economies. But through the rest of the month, daily deaths continued to decline. “I believe that at this point in the course of the pandemic, we can still take some comfort in the fact that fatalities are declining all across the country,” Vice President Mike Pence, chair of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, said on June 26.
But experts warned BuzzFeed News in late June that any rise in deaths would lag behind the rise in cases by several weeks, given the delay between infection and serious illness, and the fact that many people being infected were relatively young. Also, deaths might not start to rise until the virus had spread to more vulnerable older people.
“We just reopened too fast and these are the consequences of it,” Cedric Dark, an emergency room physician at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston who has been treating COVID-19 patients, told BuzzFeed News.
This chart highlights the trend in daily deaths for large states that have seen recent surges in cases. Florida, California, and particularly Texas have all seen sharp upticks in the number of recorded deaths in the last week.
Dark said that cases, hospitalizations, and demand for ICU beds surged in the past few weeks, before deaths started to rise. “Emergency medicine is like the canary in the coal mine,” he said. ProPublica and NBC News reported on July 10 that some ERs in Houston had been treating patients for hours or even days because ICU beds were full.
As cases continue to surge, Dark said he is particularly concerned about low-income families living in multigenerational households, where it’s hard to isolate vulnerable older people from younger relatives who may be infected. “It’s not a surprise to me why we see these cases clustering in families,” he said.
Both Dark and Hotez told BuzzFeed News that hospitals in the states that are currently worst affected are better prepared to deal with a surge of severe cases than New York City hospitals were in March and April. Treatment for severely ill patients has improved, and many doctors have been able to secure personal protective equipment including masks and respirators.
But if cases continue to rise, hospitals might not be able to keep up with the demand. “As hospital staff get overwhelmed and start getting sick and we have staff shortages, then the mortality really starts to go up,” Hotez warned.
In Arizona, deaths from COVID-19 have been rising more steadily for several months, and there hasn’t yet been an abrupt spike. But experts in that state are similarly worried about hospitals getting overwhelmed.
“It’s hard to say where it will go and what mortality will look like as hospitals become stressed,” Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist at the University of Arizona in Phoenix, and a member of the Federation of American Scientists’ Coronavirus Task Force, told BuzzFeed News by email. “I’m hopeful that hospitals are more prepared, but ultimately there’s only so many beds you can create.”
Rising deaths aren’t the only reason to be worried about the current surge in COVID-19, experts warn. Another concern is that some patients who recover from severe illness may face lasting damage to their lungs and even their brains and nervous systems.
“We may be looking at a generation of people permanently disabled as a result of COVID-19,” Hotez said.