Experts predict U.S. COVID-19 cases will dip in summer but surge in winter

Masks and vaccines could make a big difference in stopping a winter surge

woman wearing a face mask places her groceries on a checkout counter while an employee in a face mask scans them

Wearing masks, especially indoors, could be important for stemming an expected surge in COVID-19 cases in the United States this coming winter.

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The coming months of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States may feel a bit like a roller-coaster ride.

The current surge in the number of cases will dip over the summer, then rise again in the winter, a health expert predicted April 22 during a news briefing sponsored by the Infectious Diseases Society of America. Meanwhile, cases are expected to continue to rise globally, largely fueled by cases in South Asia, particularly India, said Ali Mokdad, a public health researcher at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle.

As more Americans get vaccinated, daily deaths are predicted to decline, Mokdad said, from about 700 deaths per day as of April 21 to about 200 deaths per day by August 1. By then, the U.S. cumulative death toll from COVID-19 is expected to reach 618,000, up from about 570,000 currently.

As with other respiratory viruses, when cold weather drives more people back inside, cases and deaths could surge again, Mokdad said. How bad it gets depends on whether people wear masks (SN: 2/12/21). “Come winter… we expect a rise in cases and we’ll be swimming upstream,” he said. “We have a problem coming. Please, wear your mask.”

If 95 percent of people wear masks, the rise in cases and deaths could be mild, he said. Vaccines, coronavirus variants, the number of people who have already had COVID-19 and how much people interact with others could change the equation as well.

Looking longer-term, the coronavirus is here to stay, Amesh Adalja, an infectious diseases doctor at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security said in the briefing.

“It’s a mistake to think that we’re going to get to COVID-zero. This is not an eradicable disease,” he said.

But if enough people get vaccinated, the virus may eventually become more like a seasonal cold. “These vaccines … will change your life,” Adalja said. “These vaccines were made to defang or tame the virus, and they’re doing an excellent job at that.”

Some “breakthrough” infections have happened among fully vaccinated people, but those infections tend to produce mild symptoms with few instances of serious illness or hospitalization, Adalja said. Vaccinated people are also less likely to spread the virus to others if they do catch it (SN: 3/30/21).

Even so, until herd immunity has been reached, people will still need to wear masks, Adalja said.  But, he added, “the more people we get vaccinated, the less likely we will have to think about masks again for COVID-19.”

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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