The U.S. has reached another potential turning point in the pandemic. But this is also a moment when the Covid-19 data is unusually tricky to read. In today’s newsletter, I’ll try to make sense of it, with help from four charts created by my colleague Ashley Wu.
On the one hand, the country may be on the verge of a virtuous cycle of declining cases. Although scientists don’t understand why, Covid has often followed a two-month cycle: When cases begin rising in a country, they often do so for about two months, before starting to decline. In the U.S., the Delta wave began in early July, a bit more than two months ago.
On the other hand, schools across the country have recently reopened, and some other activities — like crowded college football games and Broadway plays — have restarted. All this socializing has led some epidemiologists to predict that cases could surge this month.
Right now, it is hard to figure out what’s happening from the much-watched charts that track daily Covid cases. Those charts have recently been messy because of Labor Day. With testing centers and laboratories closed for the holiday weekend, cases plunged artificially during the long weekend, before surging — also artificially — in the days after. As a result, the seven-day average of Covid cases (the measure that many trackers highlight) has been distorted for much of this month.
We have tried to smooth over the fluctuations by reassigning some of the positive tests from the day after Labor Day to the holiday itself. We kept the total number of confirmed cases the same but imagined that they followed a more normal weekly pattern (which is probably closer to reality).
You can see the result in the dotted line below:
Our adjusted line does not fully eliminate the Labor Day noise, but it does offer a clearer picture. And that picture is encouraging. The number of new cases has fallen more than 10 percent since Sept. 1.
The state-by-state data is consistent with that trend. In some states where the Delta wave struck early, like California, Florida and Missouri, cases have been falling for even longer. In states where Delta arrived later, like Colorado and Massachusetts, the wave has begun to show signs of cresting.
The data on hospitalizations, which can be more reliable than the cases data, is also consistent with it. The seven-day average of the number of hospitalized Americans peaked on Sept. 3 and has since fallen about 7 percent:
The most likely scenario seems to be that the Delta wave has peaked in the U.S., after slightly more than two months of rising cases and hospitalizations. (Here is The Morning’s longer explanation of Covid’s mysterious two-month cycle.)
Worse than Europe
Still, there are two important caveats to the encouraging trends.
One, the current Covid situation remains terrible in much of the U.S. Hospitals in the Mountain West, Southeast and Appalachia are filled with Covid patients. Doctors and nurses are overwhelmed and exhausted. The number of nationwide Covid deaths — which typically lags the trends in new cases by a few weeks — has continued rising recently. About 2,000 Americans are dying every day.
The situation here is worse than in almost any other country. The U.S. death rate over the past two weeks, adjusted for population, is more than twice as high as Britain’s, more than seven times as high as Canada’s and more than 10 times as high as Germany’s. If Mississippi were its own country, it would have one of the world’s worst total death tolls per capita, CNN’s Jake Tapper noted yesterday.
Why? One reason is that the U.S. — after getting off to an excellent start — now trails many of these countries in Covid vaccination rate. Almost one in four American adults still has not received a shot. The unvaccinated continue to be disproportionately people without a college degree and Republican voters.
The vaccines radically reduce the chances of serious Covid illness, and deaths are occurring overwhelmingly among the unvaccinated. Yet many people have chosen to leave themselves unprotected. It’s a modern tragedy, caused by the widespread distrust that Americans feel toward society’s major institutions and exacerbated by online disinformation.
The second caveat is that the encouraging trends of the past couple of weeks are not guaranteed to continue.
Covid’s two-month cycle is not a scientific law. There have been exceptions to it, and there will be more. Maybe those packed football games will cause new outbreaks that are not yet visible in the data. Or maybe the onset of colder weather or some mysterious force will lead case numbers to rebound in coming weeks. The pandemic has spent almost two years surprising people, often for the worse. As my colleague Apoorva Mandavilli has written, Covid has given everybody a crash course in scientific uncertainty.
For now, the best summary may be that Covid is both an unnecessarily bad crisis in the U.S. and one that appears to be slowly becoming a little less bad. If recent history repeats itself — a big if — U.S. cases will keep declining during the early autumn.
More on the virus:
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‘The Power of the Dog’ and more
Founded in 1976, the Toronto International Film Festival has a democratic spirit. It is intended for the general public, while festivals like Cannes are invitation-only. “It’s just a flood of movies — good, bad and indifferent,” writes Manohla Dargis, a Times film critic who attended this year’s Toronto festival, which wrapped this weekend.
Highlights included “Flee,” a beautifully animated documentary about an Afghan refugee; “Hold Your Fire,” a jaw-dropper about a decades-old American hostage crisis; Benedict Cumberbatch as a 1920s Montana cowboy in “The Power of the Dog”; and “Becoming Cousteau,” about the underwater French explorer.
Manohla’s favorite film from the festival, “The Tsugua Diaries,” was shot during the pandemic and is about “friendship and the deep, life-sustaining pleasures of being with other people.” — Sanam Yar, a Morning writer
PLAY, WATCH, EAT
What to Cook
The pangram from Friday’s Spelling Bee was carrying. Here is today’s puzzle — or you can play online.
Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Plucky spirit (five letters).
If you’re in the mood to play more, find all our games here.
Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. — David
P.S. Amy Fiscus, The Times’s national security editor, is joining The Morning’s team and will oversee the launch of our weekend editions.