The line isn’t doing what it’s meant to do. After several months of mild up and down, the COVID case chart for Texas is surging. Hospitals are filling up. Governor Greg Abbott has called a halt to the state’s reopening and the hunt is on for stadiums and empty halls to house patients. Texas has already been through a lockdown and come out the other side, but both its hospitalisations and the proportion of positive test results have doubled in the past three weeks, the opposite of what should happen as testing capacity expands. In the US overall, after six weeks falling or flatlining, new cases are now approaching the highs of more than 30,000 a day last seen in April.
Tubers prepare to float the Comal River in Texas despite the recent spike in COVID-19 cases.Credit:AP
Despite warning signs, an almost mystical notion has taken hold, which claims that COVID-19 has entered some sort of “natural decline”. Life is slowly edging towards normality and public spaces are filling up, from park loungers to protesters, beachgoers and rioters. Surely the worst is over?
Sadly, the fact that we are bored with this whole virus thing doesn’t actually mean we are safe. There is very little compelling evidence to suggest we are anywhere near mass immunity. Survey testing has so far found that antibodies are present in about 5 per cent of most populations. This may underestimate our resilience, given that not everyone needs antibodies to fight off COVID, but it is a long way from herd immunity.
This shouldn’t surprise anyone following the data. In the past few weeks, there have been surges in many places where the epidemic had been in stasis or decline, such as Singapore, South Korea, Israel, China and the US, where the growth is concentrated in Texas, Arizona, Florida and California. In most of these cases outside the US, authorities have got on top of the new clusters quickly, imposed local lockdowns and run intense contact-tracing operations to root out transmission, avoiding anything big enough to be called a “second wave”. But the virus’ capacity to generate a second wave should not be in doubt. The only uncertainty is whether we will spot and snuff out new clusters fast enough to avoid one.