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The U.S. COVID-19 Outbreak Is Still Bad—And It Could Get Worse

6 minute read

In many places across the United States, COVID-19 feels over. Unmasked citizens run rampant. New York City is planning an August mega-concert in Central Park. I’m as hopeful as the rest of us, but I think we may be suffering from memory loss.

Let’s start from this time last year, when many Americans were exuberantly returning to newly reopened beaches, parks and restaurants after a seemingly eternal three months—three whole months!—of quarantine. Universal observance of safety guidelines was surely going to be sufficient to limit viral spread.

We know how that turned out. By mid-June 2020, there were already signs that our bleary-eyed re-emergence was premature. On June 22, 2020, the number of new daily cases of COVID-19 (33,485) surpassed the high-water mark hit on the worst day of the horrific first surge, when that figure peaked at just over 32,000.

A year later, the daily case count is not as foreboding—nor is it nearly as low it may appear.

If you look at a graph of new daily cases of COVID-19 since March 1, 2021, averaged over seven days, you’ll see that the slope of the curve was in steep decline until the beginning of June. Since then, progress has nearly flatlined at a figure that stubbornly refuses to dip below 10,000 people per day.

You’ll notice that this graph covers only the past 12 weeks, while virtually every chart you’ll find (including the one on TIME’s dashboard) graphs COVID-19 cases from the beginning of the outbreak. This is intentional. The toll of the pandemic in the U.S. has persisted for so long, and reached such catastrophic heights in the first weeks of 2021, that patterns such as this one are nearly impossible to see on the typical chart. Here’s what the same graph looks like against that backdrop:

My fear is that the pandemic remains much more deadly than how it looks on the page. Yes, deaths remain on a steady decline, having recently sunk below 300 people a day on average for the first time since March 24, 2020, right around the time that many offices were shuttering. But a surge in cases, particularly among the large number of unvaccinated Americans, could quickly reverse that decline. For context, let’s look at just the figures since March 1, 2021 against the same period last year (the blue portion above):

As you can see, it has been less than a month since the 2021 case count sunk below the year-over-year figure, on May 26. The massive nationwide vaccine rollout is undoubtedly a major factor, but it’s difficult to quantify the impact of vaccination on the currently low case and death figures. There are only weak correlations between states’ vaccination rates and some key indicators, like the rate at which cases have risen or fallen in recent weeks.

What we can quantify is that, in the 27 days since the lines crossed, the vaccination rate in the U.S. has only crawled upward, from 39.7% to 45.3% of Americans who have received a complete dosage. While the official vaccination rate applies to the entire population, data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also includes percentages for several age groups. By TIME’s calculations, there are 97.4 million adults age 18 and over who have been eligible for vaccination for two months but who have not yet received even a first dose. This group trends heavily younger, with those 65 and over representing only 7.8% of the unvaccinated population. (These figures do no include those under 18, who constitute a small portion of the eligible population.)

On May 13, two weeks before daily case numbers in 2021 fell below the year-over-year figures from the same day in 2020, the CDC issued guidance liberating fully vaccinated individuals from wearing masks in many scenarios. I do not have conclusive proof that any of the country’s 97.4 million unvaccinated adults have abused this privilege. All I can state with confidence is that, based on the number of people I’ve seen not wearing a mask in places like stores, which often have signs imploring those who are not fully vaccinated to continue to mask up, it is mathematically almost certain that more than a few have done so.

Which is to say: the situation today, if one can momentarily rewind to Memorial Day of 2020, feels very familiar. There appears to be a lambent light at the end of the tunnel, yet cavalier attitudes towards the pandemic, particularly among younger people who, as a group, are under-vaccinated, resembles what we saw last summer just before the second wave.

Watching these trends, I grow more concerned every day that the country is positioned for yet another surge in cases, despite our defensive upgrades in the off-season. I hope I’m wrong, but the numbers are not nearly as comforting as they first look. The fact that the Delta variant, which is both more transmissible and appears to cause more severe disease, is on pace to become the dominant form of COVID-19 in the U.S. in the coming months is further reason for alarm. Moreover, some states have significantly higher vaccination rates than others, leaving those with less protection more vulnerable to future spikes.

Forgive me for being a buzzkill, but unless we can institute a functional vaccine passport system, which appears unlikely, I do not think it is wise to assume that every unmasked individual is fully dosed. Short of a passport system, and with dangerous variants competing for dominance and the duration of vaccine protection still unclear, we ought to continue to ration physical space in public areas—a policy that is hastily being relaxed at places like Major League Baseball parks. I love baseball and eagerly look forward to buzzing up to Philadelphia to take in a game at Citizen’s Bank Park, which is operating at full capacity. But not while the policy is that “Unvaccinated fans are strongly encouraged to wear their masks in all indoor and outdoor areas in and around the ballpark.”

I also think there might be a backdoor to a digital passport system. Based on polling data, it appears there is a substantial population of people who aren’t categorically opposed to vaccination, just unmotivated to get around to it—what we’ve termed vaccine “meh-sitance,” not hesitance. My proposal is that bars, restaurants and other popular venues merely require each person who enters to verbally affirm that they are fully vaccinated.

This might sound about as effective as asking passengers in the exit row to individually verify that they listened to the instructions. But while it’s one thing to ignore a sign at the grocery store, it’s another to lie in front of your friends. Peer pressure is a powerful motivator, and if even a fraction of the unvaccinated would take the time to resolve that dissonance, or risk missing out on trivia night, it could substantially push up the percentages. I call this the “FOMO method,” and though we are still a long, long way from eliminating the disease altogether, it could help us avert a fourth wave this summer.

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Write to Chris Wilson at chris.wilson@time.com