(NEXSTAR) – During the United States’ first wave of COVID-19 infections in 2020, public health experts warned: “If you think it’s bad now, wait until the winter.” They were right, it was bad. Very bad.
Now, as we experience a deja-vu inducing summer surge in 2021, should we be worried about another dark winter of overloaded hospitals, lockdowns and canceled family gatherings?
Dr. George Rutherford, an epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, is looking at the southern hemisphere – currently in its winter season – for a sign of what may be in store.
“If you look at Argentina, Chile, South Africa and Botswana, they’ve all had big outbreaks going on,” Rutherford says. “The big southern hemisphere countries all have big outbreaks with the exception of Australia and New Zealand, which can control their borders and have done so very aggressively.”
He said the weather in those countries “isn’t exactly brutal” – it’s more like a Southern California winter than a New England winter – but people are generally inside more often, and that’s what’s concerning.
“It’s a harbinger. That suggests we may see another surge in the winter,” Rutherford says. “But we’re also racing against a few things.”
First, there’s the delta variant. The highly transmissible version is basically responsible for this summer surge. If it gets replaced with a variant that’s even more contagious or worse – vaccine resistant – then we’ll be worse off.
We’re also entering back-to-school season. That means a big population who can’t yet be vaccinated, kids under 12, are reentering classrooms – some with masking and social distancing, some without. How big of a factor schools are in spreading the delta variant is yet to be seen, but there’s some good news on the horizon: the Pfizer vaccine is likely to get emergency use authorization for 5- to 11-year-olds sometime in October, Rutherford says.
That likely authorization actually has Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, infectious disease specialist at UCSF, feeling less freaked out about this winter. “I feel more optimistic about the fall and cooler months for a variety of reasons,” he says.
Kids getting vaccinated chips away at our vulnerable population even more.
Plus, when compared to the southern hemisphere countries that are having winter surges right now, the U.S. has much wider access to effective COVID-19 vaccines. That works in our favor, too.
There’s also a silver lining (if you squint) to experiencing this bad of a summer surge right now, which is expecting peak in September or October. “Just like previous surges, people will get some sort of immunity,” says Chin-Hong.
That means we’re inching closer to herd immunity – we’re just doing it the hard way.
The easier way to avoid another deadly winter? Both UCSF doctors encourage people to get vaccinated if they haven’t already – even if they’ve had COVID-19. Experts say the immunity you get from a vaccine is more reliable than from a previous infection.