Jessica Malaty Rivera has an MS in Emerging Infectious Diseases and is the Science Communication Lead at The COVID Tracking Project.
Several major measures of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States are now trending in the wrong direction. For the third week in a row, the country set an all-time record for new COVID-19 cases, confirming more than 367,000 new infections. The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 also grew this week, rising 18 percent, nearly as rapidly as cases. And for the first time since April, the number of deaths nationwide also rose week-over-week, driven by an increase in four southern and southwestern states.
We saw some considerable delays in COVID-19 data reporting early in the week because of the July 4 holiday. But as the backlogs have rolled in, they have shown that the overall trend has not changed: The “second surge” of coronavirus infections is still raging. And as testing providers buckle under the strain of more demand, our ability to see the pandemic in real time is flagging.
As the number of cases rose dramatically in the US over the past month, there has been a growing disconnect between soaring cases counts and declining deaths. We have covered the changing demographics of our pandemic and how they may be affecting this lag. However, in the states seeing the worst of our second surge, such an explanation may no longer be necessary.
If we combine figures from the five states with the worst outbreaks—Arizona, California, Florida, South Carolina, and Texas — the 7-day average of reported deaths has risen 51 percent since June 8. Over the same period, the 7-day average of reported deaths from all other states has fallen 49 percent. In absolute numbers, the states with the biggest increases are still posting fewer deaths than the rest of the country, but the upward trend is unmistakable.
The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 has been steadily increasing for the past three weeks. More than 43,000 people are currently reported to be hospitalized with COVID-19 in the United States—a number we haven’t seen since mid May. We also know this number to be an undercount, given that Florida, Hawaii, and Kansas still aren’t reporting this data.
In South Carolina, after months of steady average daily new cases, the seven-day average has increased by more than five and a half times since the beginning of June. Over the same time, the seven-day average number of people hospitalized tripled.
North Carolina’s trends are different, but equally concerning. With the number of new cases rising steadily, the current seven-day average for new reported cases is more than twice what it was at the beginning of June, and 45 percent more people are hospitalized, on average.
In Georgia, the seven-day average number of new cases is more than four and a half times what it was on June 1st, and the average number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 has more than doubled.
Outside the states being hit hardest in the second surge, we are increasingly concerned about steep increases in cases and hospitalizations in Ohio, where the seven-day average of new cases reported is more than two and a half times what it was a month ago, and the seven-day average for people hospitalized is 49 percent greater than in late June.
Testing has plateaued in states with case surges
As the worst outbreaks in the United States continue to heat up, testing has begun to break down under the strain. More testing locations are backing up, resulting in long waits for results. The seven-day rolling average in all four US regions have dipped.
The United States is still doing a lot of tests for COVID-19. Of the 37.8 million tests reported since the beginning of the pandemic, 4.5 million of those were reported in the past week. Even with the holiday weekend closing some test sites, we saw a week with at least 500,000 tests reported every day. It’s impossible to say yet if the plateau we’re seeing in testing at the national level is partly because of the long weekend or an indication of more severe problems in testing capacity and supply chains. Either way, based on the most recent guidance from the Harvard Global Health Institute, our current level of testing is less than half the recommended amount of tests to slow the spread of COVID-19 for the next few months.
Since last week, we have looked in depth at what the hospitalization data can help us understand about the severity of outbreaks, the unique and common problems with Florida’s COVID-19 data, and why even death is uncertain during this pandemic. To keep up to date on our work, follow us on Twitter and join our low-frequency email list.