Will the coronavirus get worse in the winter?

covid-19 winter coronavirus
Photo via PokemonaDeChroma/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

Summer months saw slight drops in coronavirus cases in many parts of the country, thanks in part to increased mask usage and responsible social distancing measures. But as we begin to enter a COVID-19 winter, the looming question is whether we’ll see renewed spikes in cases—similar to when the pandemic first broke out in early 2020.

Though there are many factors into predicting a second wave of the virus (even as the United States continues to battle the first wave) science points to things becoming worse in the winter—based on what we already know about similar viruses.

All four of the other types of coronavirus—including influenza, rhinoviruses (the cause of the common cold), and respiratory syncytial virus—spread more rapidly in the winter. There are a few simple explanations for this. For one thing, viruses generally survive better outside of the body in colder temperatures. There’s also a decrease in UV light, which helps to diminish the potency of the virus.

These viruses tend to thrive in climates with lower levels of humidity, and as our mucous membranes get drier, they also become more vulnerable to infection. Added to that, colder temperatures lead to people spending more time indoors together. Without the safety net of outdoor social distancing, all of these factors could lead to a recipe for disaster.

“It may be seasonal, based on other viruses that do tend to peak in winter,” London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine researcher Dr. Rachel Lowe told the BBC. “But the driving mechanisms are poorly understood. Is it the meteorological conditions or human behavior?”

“People are reasonably and justifiably concerned, I think,” said Imperial College London Professor Wendy Barclay. “It’s quite possible there will be a second wave, it is clear we haven’t reached anything like herd immunity and winter is a very obviously a time you’d expect a second wave to do well. It’s a huge unknown at the moment, I think things could be bad, yeah.”

Another unknown factor is the possibility of COVID-19 coinciding with flu season, which typically begins in October and hits its peak December through February. Health experts are already warning of a potential “twindemic” as the annual flu season overlaps with the pandemic.

“I think November, December, January, February are going to be tough months in this country without a vaccine,” Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told STAT News.

Social behavior’s role during the COVID-19 winter

Warmer weather has allowed for increasingly lax attitudes toward the virus. However, once colder temperatures take hold of the northern and midwestern parts of the country and force people back into quarantining from their homes, how we deal with this renewed fatigue will likely play a big part in containing future outbreaks.

If people simply continue socializing indoors, the combination of heightened transmission in enclosed spaces with dry, heated air that presents an ideal environment for the virus to thrive could lead to spikes in cases.

“There really is no easy way to socialize during late fall [and] winter in large parts of the country if you’re not doing it outside,” Ashish Jha, the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told The Atlantic. “Could I have people over [to] my house for two hours on a Sunday morning in December? Barring really good testing, probably not.”

“We know that the biggest risk of spread for this virus is when meaningful numbers of people gather indoors for any extended period of time,” Jha continued. “Also, people are already feeling pandemic fatigue, and I think that’ll only get worse.”

The window to act is already closing

The U.S., in particular, has handled the coronavirus pandemic far poorer than any other affluent country. This laissez-faire attitude may cost the country during the winter. If the virus couldn’t be brought under control during the summer months with slower rates of transmission, it only makes sense that colder months will spell disaster.

“We just continue to squander every bit of opportunity we get with this epidemic to get it under control,’’ said epidemiologist Michael Mina, an assistant professor at Harvard and associate medical director of clinical microbiology at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

“The best time to squash a pandemic is when the environmental characteristics slow transmission. It’s your one opportunity in the year, really, to leverage that extra assistance and get transmission under control,” Mina said with “frustration audible,” according to STAT News.

With little progress in containing the virus, it seems inevitable that widespread shutdowns will resume in the winter, and Americans will have no one to blame but themselves.

In lieu of an effective vaccine, one possible ray of hope that could lessen the brunt of a winter resurgence would be the widespread availability of cheap, quick testing that would allow people to test themselves before coming into contact with others.

“Imagine those tests get better and they become ubiquitous—could you go and hang out with a friend if you both tested negative that morning, in a community that doesn’t have a large transmission? I would feel comfortable” doing that, Jha said. But “I probably wouldn’t give them a hug and sit right next to them.”

Sources: BBC, The Atlantic, STAT News

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