Memorial Day and Independence Day celebrations this year spurred big spikes in coronavirus cases — and Anthony Fauci is worried that Labor Day will be the same.
If people once again celebrate without precautions, it could upend the progress the U.S. is making in reducing Covid-19 infections and leave the nation in a more precarious position as it approaches the fall, the country’s top infectious disease specialist said in an interview Friday.
“We don’t want to go into the fall with one hand tied behind our back because we have another surge that we have to deal with,” Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told STAT.
As cases rise, it can be difficult for experts to look back and disentangle exactly what specific activities drove the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. But Fauci said the Memorial Day and Independence Day weekends helped fuel the spike in cases this summer that swept primarily through the southern part of the country. Holiday weekends tend to draw people together and send people traveling — situations that can enable new infections and can seed chains of transmission in new places.
“Because of the understandable desire of people letting it loose a bit and having a lot of fun over the holidays, we saw that after the Fourth of July and Memorial Day, there was a surge in cases,” Fauci said.
Already, experts are warning that the fall and winter — which will force people in the northern part of the country back indoors, bring flu season, and may increase how easily the virus spreads among people — could be bleak. Heading into that period with more Covid-19 cases will only worsen the impact.
“We really have to avoid that with the Labor Day weekend because we do not want to go into the fall with another post-holiday surge,” Fauci said.
Unlike Memorial Day and the Fourth, Labor Day comes as students are returning to some schools and universities. Already, clusters of cases have emerged at a number of colleges, leading some to pull the plug on their plans to allow for in-person teaching for the fall semester.
Fauci pointed to increases in test positivity among young people in states including Montana, the Dakotas, Michigan, Minnesota, and Iowa as a sign of concern. Experts warn that even though younger people generally have milder cases of Covid-19 than older people, some of them will still get so sick they get hospitalized and some could die. Plus, experts say, more spread among one population makes it more likely the virus will reach vulnerable people, including the elderly.
According to STAT’s Covid-19 Tracker, the country is down to about 40,000 confirmed cases a day from its summer peak of 70,000 daily infections, in part driven by declines in states that experienced large outbreaks, including Texas, Arizona, and Florida. But experts fear that without coordinated and sustained efforts, the country will plateau at this high level of cases. Having so much virus circulating makes it harder to try to rein in spread and increases the chance of another jump in cases.
Worse than plateauing, of course, is an increase in infections. Fauci said people needed to act prudently this weekend to avoid igniting more spread.
“It would really be unfortunate if these formerly hot states as it were are now turning it around, and all of a sudden, you set yourself back a couple of steps because the post-Labor Day surge occurs and you’re right back where you started from,” he said about states like Texas, Arizona, and Florida.
How to avoid new cases is no secret — everyone by now could surely rattle the steps off: Wear a mask. Keep your distance. Wash your hands. Avoid crowds. Keep any activities spaced out and outside. Stay home if you don’t feel well.
At the same time, Fauci and other public health experts have acknowledged that people’s willingness to stick to the recommended practices is waning. People miss their old lives, miss their family and friends, and are feeling fatigued after more than six months of living through a pandemic.
“I understand why people are becoming complacent,” Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told reporters on a call on Friday. “Everyone’s tired. Everyone is really worn down by this virus.”
But the virus takes advantage of us when we let our guard down. Weddings, bachelorette weekends, parties among college students, and family gatherings have all spread the virus — and in turn made people sick, put some in hospitals, and caused some deaths.
“We’re definitely still in a very bad place,” Mina said about the current situation in the U.S. “We still have almost a thousand people dying every day from Covid.”