After a hopeful few months in which COVID cases plummeted and the logistical barriers to vaccination lifted, we now face an autumn that threatens to erase our progress. The slowed vaccination rate—not to mention growing tensions over COVID precautions like mask wearing and social distancing—is now fueling a surge of the Delta variant. On Sept. 9, the U.S. recorded over 170,000 new daily cases, and the death toll has returned to numbers not seen since March.
Though the surge has ushered in a new phase of uncertainty, some experts say that tracking cases closely during this current phase may help us to map the Delta variant’s trajectory. One such expert is Michael T. Osterholm, PhD, MPH, an epidemiologist and the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) and the University of Minnesota. In a weekly podcast he hosts, Osterholm Update, he told this week’s listeners that there are two crucial places in the U.S. to watch for insights into the Delta variant’s course. Read on to find out which two states may determine Delta’s next move, and whether Osterholm is expecting a surge in your state.
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Southern California and New York City could determine the trajectory of the Delta surge.
After seeing rampant surges across the country, especially in southern states, Osterholm said on his podcast that he’s now “watching carefully” to see what happens in New York and California, specifically New York City and the southern part of the Golden State.
“Right now, those two major population areas surely have pockets of unvaccinated people not previously infected that could cause large numbers of cases to occur in a short period of time,” he said. “If these two areas don’t blow up, that’ll have a big impact also on keeping the surge from going to an even higher level,” said Osterholm.
The good news? Over the past two weeks, New York has seen only a two percent case increase, and California has seen a nine percent decrease over that same time period, according to Osterholm. “These two will be major determinants of how this surge plays out,” he said. “If these two areas don’t blow up, that will have a big impact also on keeping the surge from going to an even higher level. … Those will determine where we go in terms of this part of the pandemic.”
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Osterholm says COVID cases are rising in 11 other states.
While New York and California may serve as bellwethers for the future of the Delta variant, there are at least 11 states that are already in the midst of a serious Delta surge. “We have to look at what is happening in other states around the country, and as we do, we see right now that that Southeastern block of states—Tennessee, South Carolina, Kentucky, West Virginia, North Carolina—are all seeing increases of anywhere from 10 to 30 percent over the course of the past two weeks,” Osterholm said.
Additionally, the infectious disease expert warned that many far northwest and north-central states such as Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota are “all increasing—in some cases in substantial numbers.”
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But it seems the Delta surge has peaked in six other states.
While those 11 states are still seeing heightened transmission, Osterholm says there are at least six states where the current surge of the Delta variant seems to have peaked. Those include Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Additionally, Osterholm notes that Oregon and the state of Washington “seem to have hit their peak and are leveling off—hopefully about to decrease.”
However, Osterholm warns that reaching a peak doesn’t mean those states are out of harm’s way. “While we’re seeing decreased cases in a number of the hot spots we’ve been following such as Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi, I just want to remind everyone that we’re far from out of the woods,” he said. Wherever large portions of the population are unvaccinated, states remain vulnerable to new waves of infection.
Schools could cause a “major increase in cases,” Osterholm says.
Finally, Osterholm had another concerning prediction: that we’ll see a “major increase in cases” as a result of schools reopening this fall, especially in the coming six to 12 weeks. He anticipates that these will cause “spillover” infections in those that are unvaccinated, and in rarer cases, breakthrough infections among the vaccinated.
“I really hope I’m wrong here, I pray to God I’m wrong…but I fear our schools are going to become the flash forest fire for the virus for the upcoming weeks,” he said on the podcast. Osterholm added that whether or not this comes to fruition is a “wildcard” in determining the future of the Delta variant.
“Kids, New York, and L.A.—those will determine where we go,” the epidemiologist warned.
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