For weeks, as coronavirus cases spiked across the country, especially in the South and West, the number of COVID-19 deaths did not rise accordingly. Health experts warned that the divergence would not last, but others suggested that younger patients and better treatment could keep the death count relatively low despite the case surge. Turns out the experts were right.
Last week, for the first time since April, the seven-day average of daily COVID-19 deaths began a sustained upward surge. The seven-day stretch from Sunday, July 5, to Sunday, July 12, saw an average of 704 daily deaths, according to the COVID Tracking Project. For the seven days prior, the number was 497. Four days last week saw death totals above 800, which hasn’t happened since the start of June.
Physician Eric Topol tweeted Monday that there’s no longer any need “to try and explain divergence of the case and fatality curves.” The curves are now going in the same direction.
The surge in deaths comes roughly four weeks after the surge in cases began, which came several weeks after many states reopened. In Arizona, which reopened its economy in early May, bars were packed in mid-June as Governor Doug Ducey blocked local governments from mandating masks. In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott blamed irresponsible young people for the surge that began in mid-June. In Florida, at around the same time, Governor Ron DeSantis said he wasn’t worried about the spike in cases because many of those testing positive were not high-risk. And in California, even as cases rose, Governor Gavin Newsom forged ahead with reopening plans. Now all four states are seeing a death surge, while New York City, the onetime epicenter of the outbreak, reported zero deaths Monday for the first time since the pandemic began.
This trajectory was expected. “Today’s cases represent infections that probably happened a week or two ago,” Boston University epidemiology Elenor Murray told Vox last week. “Today’s deaths represent cases that were diagnosed possibly up to a month ago, so infections that were up to six weeks ago or more.”
Four weeks ago, in mid-June, cases began surging in the country’s current hot spots. And many health experts predicted a spike following Memorial Day, which was six weeks ago.
As cases increased throughout June, some pointed to the declining death rate as a sign of progress, rather than warning of the coming death spike. Vice-President Mike Pence called falling death numbers “an encouragement” on June 26, suggesting, as many did at the time, that because young people were testing positive at much higher rate than they were earlier in the pandemic, death numbers would remain low.
But that logic was flawed. “Even though initially it was mostly young individuals that were infected, it’s only a matter of time where they start to infect older individuals that have higher mortality rates,” infectious disease expert Thomas Russo told the Wall Street Journal over the weekend. Young people themselves are not immune from death either. That has become painfully clear in Florida, which saw 52 COVID-19 deaths in people aged 22 to 44 in the first four months of the pandemic. In the five weeks that followed, that number more than doubled to 106.