New reported infections nationwide surpassed 80,000 for the first time this Friday and again Saturday, as hospitalizations push past 40,000 and daily death tolls begin to climb. Officials are already trying to shore up overwhelmed facilities: In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) on Sunday announced that state authorities are creating a new site for medical care and deploying extra resources to hospitals in El Paso, where covid-19 hospitalizations have nearly quadrupled to almost 800 in less than three weeks.
The United States’ latest case spike, expected to intensify as winter draws closer, is geographically broader than the spring surge that devastated East Coast states and the summer wave that hit the South and Southwest. And it comes as leaders are leery of renewed shutdowns, as Americans grow wearier of restrictions and as the Thanksgiving travel season looms.
In previous waves, “our governments reacted,” said Megan Ranney, an emergency medicine professor at Brown University. “We closed bars. We closed restaurants. We enforced mask mandates. And I’m not seeing a lot of that nationally right now.”
“We are set up for just a perfect storm — a conflagration,” she said. “Right now, you can talk about there being lots of little burning fires across the country. And then Thanksgiving will be the wind that will whip this fire up into an absolutely human disaster for our country.”
In El Paso, authorities are urging people to stay home as efforts to add hospital beds kick in. The new facility announced by Abbott, set to open this week at the El Paso Convention and Performing Arts Center, will start at 50 beds but can expand to 100 if necessary, the governor’s office said, while “auxiliary medical units” sent to hospitals can boost capacity by 100 beds.
In a Sunday call, Abbott also asked the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to ease the pressure with a Department of Defense medical center in El Paso. Abbott asked to house non-coronavirus patients in William Beaumont Army Medical Center so that hospitals in the El Paso area could give more beds to those with covid-19, the disease the novel coronavirus causes.
Health and Human Services did not immediately provide a comment.
New daily infections in El Paso have rocketed from fewer than 25,000 at the beginning of the month to more than 38,500 this weekend, according to The Washington Post’s tracking. New deaths have yet to surpass a peak in August, but deaths lag behind spikes in cases and hospitalizations.
The mayor of El Paso, Dee Margo, said he learned on a recent ride-along with fire officials that most of their calls are related to the coronavirus. If moves to address hospitals’ strain do not work, he said, he will ask the governor for more action. He pleaded with residents to mind their behavior to avoid “drastic measures.”
Some public health experts say they are not optimistic about the chances of ramping up coronavirus restrictions again across the country.
“I don’t see forceful policy intervention happening any time soon,” former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “We have a moment of opportunity right now to take some forceful steps to try to abate the spread that’s underway. But if we don’t do that, if we miss this window, this is going to continue to accelerate, and it’s going to be more difficult to get … under control.”
Ranney, the Brown University professor, also said she is seeing “people just kind of throw up their hands nationwide” amid hospitalization numbers not seen in months.
She said she feels okay about hospital capacity in Rhode Island, which was hit hard by the virus early on and in Ranney’s view has developed good plans for another surge.
But she doubted that governments and hospitals around the country are ready and said even with good planning, the mounting surge will be “emotionally and physically draining on everyone in the system.”