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Experts fear that the number of COVID-19 deaths in the US will increase from mid-June after an increase in newly diagnosed cases.
The new deaths are greatest in the two most populous states, California and Texas. And while infectious disease specialists hope that the death toll will not increase with the April New York carnage, where the death toll peaked at around 1
“I’m concerned about the speed at which things are accelerating here,” Peter Hotez, a vaccine researcher at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, told BuzzFeed News. Unfortunately, the Texas Tribune reported on Saturday that some districts of the state have requested refrigerated trucks, expecting the morgues to be full soon.
The number of new COVID-19 cases began to increase in June, especially in the south and west, weeks after many states had started to reopen their economies. But later in the month, daily deaths continued to decline. “I believe that at this point in the pandemic, we can find some comfort in the fact that deaths across the country are decreasing,” said Vice President Mike Pence, chairman of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, in June 26.
However, experts warned BuzzFeed News in late June that an increase in deaths would lag behind the increase in cases by several weeks due to the delay between infection and serious illness and the fact that many infected people were relatively young. In addition, deaths could only increase once the virus has spread to vulnerable older people.
“We just reopened too quickly and that’s the consequence,” Cedric Dark, an emergency doctor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, who treated COVID-19 patients, told BuzzFeed News.
This graph shows the trend of daily deaths in large states where there has been an increase recently. In Florida, California, and especially Texas, the number of deaths has risen sharply in the past week.
Dark said that cases, hospitalization, and intensive care bed demand have increased in the past few weeks before deaths began to increase. “Emergency medicine is like the canary in the coal mine,” he said. ProPublica and NBC News reported on July 10 that some Houston emergency rooms had treated patients for hours or even days because the beds in the intensive care unit were full.
As cases continue to grow, Dark is particularly concerned about low-income families living in multi-generation households where it is difficult to isolate vulnerable older people from younger relatives who may be infected. “It’s no surprise to me why these cases are piling up in families,” he said.
Both Dark and Hotez told BuzzFeed News that hospitals in the currently worst affected states are better prepared for the increase in severe cases than hospitals in New York City in March and April. The treatment of critically ill patients has improved and many doctors have been able to secure personal protective equipment, including masks and respirators.
However, if cases continue to grow, hospitals may not be able to keep up with demand. “If hospital staff are overwhelmed and get sick and we have a shortage of people, mortality really increases,” Hotez warned.
In Arizona, deaths from COVID-19 have been rising steadily for several months, and there has been no sudden increase. But experts in this state are similarly concerned that hospitals will be overwhelmed.
“It’s hard to say where to go and what mortality will be when hospitals are stressed,” Saskia Popescu, epidemiologist at the University of Arizona at Phoenix and a member of the Federation of American Scientists Coronavirus Task Force told BuzzFeed News by email. “I hope that the hospitals are better prepared, but ultimately there are only so many beds that you can create.”
Rising deaths aren’t the only reason to worry about the current rise in COVID-19, experts warn. Another problem is that some patients recovering from a serious illness may experience permanent damage to their lungs and even their brain and nervous system.
“We may be looking at a generation of people who are permanently disabled due to COVID-19,” said Hotez.