I’m not an expert in infectious disease epidemiology now, any more than I was an expert in presidential impeachment law a year ago. But I can tell you what the people who are experts are saying: This is going to be a rough stretch in the pandemic in Arkansas.
Here’s Dr. Jose Romero, Arkansas’ secretary of health, at the governor’s weekly press conference Dec. 29: “We are seeing increased numbers of cases. And I expect, unfortunately, to see further increase in cases in the next couple of weeks.”
Dr. Joe Thompson, Arkansas Center for Health Improvement president and CEO, told me, “I think we still have a couple of months that … will be very challenging for the health care system, and also just for the general public.”
Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, the state’s epidemiologist, said, “We are headed into several weeks of potential great difficulty because of the high number of cases, the high number of hospitalizations, and unfortunately an increasing number of deaths.”
And Dr. Cam Patterson, chancellor of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, tweeted Dec. 30, “Unless circumstances change drastically, this will get worse before it gets better.”
Patterson further tweeted that his hospital system was building an addition to its emergency department “for triage & other purposes.” The hospital was asking its medical professionals to care for more patients than usual and might start caring for two patients in single rooms.
Based on the recent numbers, the rest of us shouldn’t dismiss the experts’ concerns. On Jan. 1, Arkansas reported its highest ever increase in new cases – 4,300. Those numbers fluctuate, and the next three days were much lower. On Dec. 29, the state tallied its highest ever increase in newly reported deaths, 66. On Jan. 4, it reached its highest one-day total for current hospitalizations at 1,234.
Nationwide, the surge is occurring in part because it’s winter, when people spend more time in confined spaces. Meanwhile, Christmas gatherings and New Year’s events provided opportunities for the disease to spread.
This is all happening at the same time we’re all sick and tired of this. Americans began making significant sacrifices 10 months ago. Students spent much of their 2019 spring semester at home, businesses have closed with many never to reopen, churches have held services online, families have been separated, and many of us are wearing masks in the grocery store.
Now that the vaccines are arriving and hope is on the horizon, it would be natural to let our guard down. And of course, many Americans never bought into this anyway.
What happens next? Even if the vaccines work as advertised, we’ll still need to be patient. Dillaha doesn’t expect the disease’s trajectory or its impact on Arkansas to change until late spring or early summer. Thompson predicted that for the next six months, we’ll still need to wear masks and keep our distance until enough people have been vaccinated that the virus starts running out of people to infect.
After that? Thompson thinks the year’s second half will be more normalized, with regular football seasons and hopefully traditional holiday celebrations.
We’ll also have difficult conversations about the fact that some people will be vaccinated and others will decline to be, Thompson said. Will there be restrictions on going into crowded places? What about job opportunities? Employers are already deciding if they’ll require employees to be vaccinated. Apparently, the law says they can. Thompson expects Arkansas to be less restrictive than some other states.
In other words, we’ll have something else to argue about. Don’t we always?
Thompson compared the current situation to the D-Day invasion in 1944, saying, “It’s almost like when we crossed over in World War II onto the Normandy beach. I think we’ve got a beachhead now, and we’re starting to battle back.”
There were many dark days before, during and after that invasion, but when it happened, the war was closer to its end than its beginning. Hopefully, so is the pandemic. We argue about a lot of things these days, but whether or not we’re experts, we’re all ready for this to be over.