About a year ago, scientists, politicians and the public alike were looking forward to the brighter, sunnier days of summer, hoping the warmer weather would slow the spread of the coronavirus, potentially relieving overwhelmed hospitals and saving thousands of people from severe illness.
Instead, the summer of 2020 brought the largest spikes in new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths the U.S. had seen since the pandemic began. The fall and winter seasons were even worse, spurred by a growing sense of coronavirus fatigue and back-to-back holiday gatherings.
But could this year’s summer season, which runs from June through September, tell a different story now that vaccines have joined the fight?
Experts aren’t certain, but they are approaching the summer with low expectations, mostly because the seasonal trends typical of other respiratory viruses such as the flu don’t seem to apply to the coronavirus.
“You might remember a little bit more than a year ago when we were looking for the summer to rescue us from [COVID-19] surges. It was in fact the opposite,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s medical adviser, said during a Monday White House COVID-19 briefing. “We saw some substantial surges in the summer. I don’t think we should even think about relying on the weather to bail us out of anything we’re in right now.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky shared similar concerns.
“I think we need to acknowledge that this pandemic has taken its toll both in terms of transmissibility and mortality much more than the influenza … so I’m not at all ready to say that we’re back at full range,” Walensky said during the briefing. “We have not seen seasonal trends with this virus so far. We certainly had surges over the summer. Respiratory viruses tend to have seasonal trends, as do coronaviruses specifically, but we haven’t yet seen that, so I think we’re going to have to be careful throughout the spring and the summer.”
The flu season can begin as early as October, but usually peaks sometime in February when conditions are ripe for the spread of the influenza virus. In fact, the term “influenza” may have stemmed from the Italian version “influenza di freddo,” which translates to “the influence of the cold.”
Studies show the flu virus survives longer in cold, dry air, meaning it has more chances of infecting people who can spread it to others. People also spend more time indoors during the winter, increasing the chances they inhale respiratory droplets expelled from a sick person they’re sharing enclosed space with.
Days are shorter in the winter, as well, which means people have less exposure to sunlight that provides vitamin D and melatonin, according to Harvard, compromising “our immune systems, which in turn decreases ability to fight the virus.”
But last year’s summer showed the novel coronavirus may be following the beat of its own drum.
The highest coronavirus case trends of the pandemic at the time were logged during the peak of the summer season, with daily new cases in the U.S. averaging at about 65,000 for about two consecutive weeks, NPR reported, proving summer heat didn’t play much of a role in slowing its spread.
Now, even with COVID-19 vaccines in the mix, the nation is seeing about 64,000 new cases per day, up 7% from the previous seven-day period, Walensky noted during the briefing. Hospital admissions are also increasing, with the seven-day average standing at 4,970 new admissions per day, up 3% from the prior week.
The CDC and other experts speculate the coronavirus variants, which are more contagious and appear to evade vaccines to some degree, are to blame for the recent spikes in cases — and may be the reason why the pandemic will rage on this summer.
“We still have to remain very vigilant with regard to these variants,” Walensky said.
There are currently five coronavirus variants of concern spreading in the U.S., according to the CDC: one that was first discovered in the U.K., another from Brazil, South Africa and two that first emerged in California.