You could almost hear the collective sigh Monday from the world’s public health officials, epidemiologists and front-line health-care workers.
U.S. President Donald Trump, upon announcing his release from the Walter Reed Medical Center, having improved in his condition with COVID-19, could have taken the occasion to repeat his previous thanks to the medical staff who treated him.
He might have warned the American people to wear masks and social distance in order to slow the spread of the illness that made it necessary for him to be given oxygen.
He could have simply said nothing.
Instead, he did the other thing.
“Feeling really good! Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life,” he tweeted Monday evening, hours before leaving the hospital. “We have developed, under the Trump Administration, some really great drugs & knowledge. I feel better than I did 20 years ago!”
News that the president was well enough to leave the hospital despite his diagnosis of COVID-19 was met with gratitude and support from American public figures of all political stripes.
Less universal was an appreciation for the president’s insistence on downplaying the seriousness of the virus, apparently using his own experience as evidence Americans needn’t be afraid.
Not panicking has always been among the recommendations of the most lauded public health officials during the COVID-19 crisis. But, for the same reason potential vaccines go through multiple trials with hundreds of participants before they can be approved, the experience of one person is not enough to tell us whether the coronavirus is something to fear.
Here’s some of what’s actually going on around COVID-19 right now — reasons to be concerned, and, yes, even some to be hopeful.
People continue to die of COVID-19
The fact that Donald Trump appears to be on the mend is not unexpected. In fact, his recovery is the most likely outcome of getting COVID-19, even with his age and weight putting him at higher risk for a serious form of the disease compared to other parts of the population.
Nevertheless, people are still dying of COVID-19 in the United States, Canada and around the world. As of Monday, more than one million people have died of the disease worldwide, including about 210,000 in the United States. America continues to count 1,000 deaths from the disease every day.
The Star continues to track coronavirus death statistics here. Stories of some of the Canadians who have died from the disease can be found here.
Many places — including some that had the virus under control — are in a second wave
Including, but not limited to, Ontario.
A second wave of COVID-19 cases had been predicted by public health officials since the height of the first wave, when experts said the summer might provide a temporary respite from rapid spread of the disease, only for it to pick up again in the fall.
What we are calling a second wave in Canada, with cases rising in the four most populous provinces, is more like a continual rise in cases in the United States. Transmission of COVID-19 continued throughout the summer while the U.S. economy remained largely open.
Jurisdictions outside of North America are also facing a second wave. That includes France, the U.K., the Netherlands, Malaysia and Myanmar.
Some lessons are being learned
One feature of the COVID-19 crisis common to all jurisdictions is that public health officials know more about COVID-19 now than they did when it was still commonly called the “novel” coronavirus.
More information about the protective value of masks, and the fact that the virus is more likely to transmit through the air than through surfaces, is helping countries focus their containment efforts on the strategies that work.
Winter is coming, and flu season along with it
Colder weather brings people indoors, and that’s where COVID-19 likes to spread.
But the reasons to take COVID-19 even more seriously in the winter go beyond the likelihood of transmission.
Now that more than half a year has passed since the coronavirus pandemic began, the effects of self-isolating are being felt around this country and the world. Mental health experts have pointed out that as winter descends, so may a new sense of gloom, as options to socialize outdoors disappear.
“With the lack of sunlight, and less social connections from not being able to spend as much time outdoors, that’s a triple whammy,” Steve Joordens, professor of psychology at University of Toronto, told the Star.
Winter is also flu season, and that means the possibility of more people entering hospitals to be treated for that illness, putting a greater strain on the health-care system. Experts and health-care workers have urged the public to get flu shots to prevent that from happening.
B.C.’s Dr. Bonnie Henry has called the need to protect people against the flu “paramount.”
Contact tracing is struggling to keep up
Contact tracing, the process through which public health workers find people who have likely been exposed to the virus and ask them to isolate or monitor for symptoms, is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“We’ve seen contact tracing work really well in some settings, like New Zealand, where they eliminated transmission for 101 days,” said Jean-Paul Soucy, a University of Toronto researcher who has been tracking the spread of the coronavirus in Canada.
But, Soucy explained, contact tracing begins to fall apart when there are just too many people to contact who may have been exposed to COVID-19.
Then, public health organizations, such as Toronto Public Health, may have to make a decision to suspend contact tracing and prioritize contacting only the people they know to be sick.
“Contact tracing really is critical in that phase when you’re trying to stamp out the sparks before they become wildfires,” he said. “What we’ve seen in Toronto is that they recently made the decision to suspend contact tracing — which is indicative that the second wave has reached a new level.”
Vaccine trials are making progress — but there’s no guarantee
One thing is for sure about a COVID-19 vaccine: Even in the best case scenario, it is not right around the corner.
That said, there are reasons to be hopeful that vaccines effective at preventing COVID-19 could be the next great tool in fighting the pandemic. Canada is doing its first review of a potential COVID-19 vaccine, which could become available to Canadians if it passes rigorous clinical trials.
But that will take several months.
In an interview with the CBC last month, B.C.’s provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said she’s monitoring about 50 different potential vaccine studies, and she’s cautiously optimistic that one could be available by next summer. There are several Canadians should probably be watching for news.
Still, once a vaccine is approved and available for the public, it must clear the hurdle of vaccine hesitancy — those who, for a variety of reasons, won’t enthusiastically volunteer for the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as its available.
There are, unfortunately, still plenty of things to worry about.
With files from Alex Boyd and Joanna Chiu