CHICAGO – When the coronavirus began to spread around the globe in the spring, people from Seattle to Rome to London canceled weddings and vacations, stopped visiting grandparents, and stayed at home because they thought it was a short but important period of isolation.
But the summer did not extinguish the virus. And with the fall came another dangerous, uncontrolled outbreak of infections, which in some parts of the world is the worst of the pandemics today.
Last week, the United States exceeded 8 million known cases and reported more than 70,000 new cases on Friday, the most in one day since July. Eighteen states added more new coronavirus infections during the seven-day period ending on Friday than in any other week of the pandemic.
In Europe, the number of cases is increasing and the number of hospitalizations is increasing. Britain is imposing new restrictions, and France has put cities on high alert, ordering many to close all bars, gyms and sports centers. Germany and Italy have set records for the most recent daily cases. And Czech leaders have described their health care system as “under threat of collapse”; because hospitals are overcrowded and more deaths occur than at any time in a pandemic.
The virus has taken different paths through these countries as leaders have tried to curb its spread through a number of restrictions. However, public fatigue and the increasing risk of coronavirus due to desire or necessity are common. Until the end is seen, many people gather for bars, family parties, bowling and sports, just as they did before the virus hit, and others have to go back to school or work as communities seek to revive the economy. And unlike spring, the rituals of hope and unity that helped people survive the first outbreak of the virus gave way to exhaustion and disappointment.
“People are willing to put hearts on windows and teddy bears to hunt down garbage,” said Katie Rosenberg, mayor of Wausau, Wisconsin, a city of 38,000, where the hospital has opened an additional ward to treat patients with COVID-19. “They have enough.”
In parts of the world where the virus is recovering, outbreaks and a growing sense of apathy collide, creating a dangerous combination. Health officials say growing impatience is a new challenge as they try to slow the latest outbreaks, and this threatens to exacerbate what they fear is turning into a devastating fall.
The problem is particularly acute in the United States, which has more known cases and deaths than any other country and has already withstood two major outbreaks of coronavirus; Infections jumped in the spring in the northeast and again this summer through the Sun Belt. But the phenomenon is alarming across Europe, where researchers at the World Health Organization estimate that about half the population experiences “pandemic fatigue.”
“Citizens have made huge sacrifices,” said Dr. Hans Kluge, WHO’s regional director for Europe. “It happened at an extraordinary cost, which exhausted us all, no matter where we live or what we do.”
If spring was characterized by horror, the fall was a strange combination of humility and inattention. People who never left the house are now thinking about dinner indoors for the first time – some lose patience after so many months without, others slip on gourmet food before the coming winter months, when the virus is expected to spread faster. Many people still wear masks to support their neighbors and protect others, but sidewalks decorated with chalk cheers for health workers and other people on Easter are likely to be naked on Halloween.
“In the spring, it was fear and feeling, ‘We’re all in this together,'” said Vale Wright, a psychologist with the American Psychological Association who studies stress in the United States.
“Everything is different now,” she said. “Fear has really been replaced by fatigue.”
In New York, 60-year-old Indra Singh recently took her babysitter to a playground in the morning.
“I’m so tired of everything,” she said, pulling a black mask over her face and worrying about what she would do when the weather got cold. “Will it end?” she told. “I want it to end.”
Medical treatments for the virus have improved significantly since the spring, and mortality remains lower than at its worst, but the recent rise in coronavirus infections has caused concern among health officials. More than 218,000 people have died in the United States since the pandemic began, and daily deaths have remained relatively stable in recent weeks, at about 700 a day.
In some parts of the world, behavior has changed and containment efforts have been tough and effective. Infections remain relatively low for months in places such as South Korea, Japan, New Zealand, Australia and China, where the virus first spread. After a dozen cases were discovered in the Chinese city of Qingdao, authorities last week tried to check 9.5 million people.
“We have very little reaction to such measures,” said Siddhart Sridhar, an associate professor of microbiology at the University of Hong Kong. “If anything, there are a lot of rebukes from governments for not doing enough to contain the virus.”
The reaction in the United States and much of Europe was much different. Although residents were happy to unite in the spring, time caused frustration and uprising.
Hotspots occur in the south and mid-Atlantic region of the United States and are expanding rapidly in the Midwest and Mountain West. Last week, Illinois recorded the highest daily number of confirmed cases since the onset of the pandemic and the highest number of deaths in a single day since June.
In Spain, the summer of travel and dancing led to a new surge in the fall. In Germany, health authorities on Thursday registered 7,334 infections in 24 hours, a national record. Even Italy, which imposed one of the largest blockades in Europe this spring, is now seeing alarming new growth and is considering a curfew across the country.
The virus has spread through communities, both rural and urban. In Chicago, public schools remained closed to students for the sixth week in a row as the city’s coronavirus test rose about 5 percent. In Gove County, Kansas, a population of 2,600 people, nine people have died from the virus in recent days, health officials said. Clusters of infections have sprung up at the Washington State Spa, the Hockey League in Vermont, the North Carolina Baptist Church and the Sweet 16 party on Long Island.
Patients tell contact inspectors who picked up the virus, trying to return to normal life. Beth Martin, a retired school librarian in Marathon County, Wisconsin, said she interviewed a family who fell ill due to a habitual situation – a relative’s birthday in early October.
“Another case told me, ‘You know what, it’s my adult son’s fault,'” she recalled. “He decided to go to the wedding, and now we’re all sick.”
Mark Harris, executive director of Winnebago County, Wisconsin, said he was disappointed with the “loud minority” in his county, which has successfully repelled any public health measures that should be taken against the pandemic.
They have a special opinion, he said, “It’s uncomfortable enough for me, and I’ve changed my behavior.”
In the Czech Republic, a politically divided nation, people met the initial order for asylum at home this spring, unusually demonstrating unity. They launched a national campaign to sew masks, recognized worldwide for their ingenuity. Confidence in the government to overcome the crisis reached a record 86%.
Since then, support for government measures has fallen sharply, and the country is now experiencing the fastest increase in the incidence of viruses in Europe. About half of the more than 150,000 cases recorded in the Czech Republic occurred in the last two weeks, and more than half of the country’s nearly 1,300 deaths occurred this month.
Poland is not far behind with the explosion of new cases and the decline in interest in volunteering. The country of 38 million has the lowest number of doctors per capita in the European Union, and some doctors are now refusing to join coronavirus teams concerned about safety protocols.
“We are on the verge of a catastrophe,” Pavel Zeszeszewski, a prominent Polish immunologist, told RMF FM.
There are growing signs that constant stress is taking its toll. In the United States, store-bought alcohol sales rose 23 percent during the pandemic, according to Nielsen, which could reflect the country’s anxiety, as well as falling drinks sold in restaurants and bars.
Overdose mortality is also on the rise in many cities. In Cuiahoga County, Ohio, which includes Cleveland, there were recently 19 deaths from overdose in one week, well above most weeks.
“Like many other people, I will be glad to see the end of 2020,” said Dr. Thomas Gilson, the county’s medical expert.
In the early days of the pandemic, 47-year-old Shanna Groome was busy spreading subliminal messages in her neighborhood in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. She chalked the smiling faces on the porch, waved the school flag as teachers drove around, and placed a teddy bear in her window as part of a “bear hunt” for the neighborhood children.
The bear, dressed as a nurse, in a mask and mint-green scrubs, sat for months in his dining room window. This month, the Groom finally removed the bear to paint the room.
“It upset me a little,” said Groom, a nurse. “At first we did a sprint, but now it’s a marathon. We’re a little tired. “
In many states, businesses are open and often open without restrictions, even when hospitalization has increased. Last week, a field hospital for coronavirus patients was reopened in Wisconsin at the state’s 530-seat exhibition space.
Dr. Michael Landroom, who treats coronavirus patients in Green Bay, Wisconsin, said the use of masks was more common than in the spring, making it easier for hospital staff to obtain personal protective equipment, and treating the virus more difficult.
At that time, it was not so difficult to understand where sick patients contracted the coronavirus. There have been outbreaks of meat processing plants in the city, and many cases have been linked to them. It’s getting harder now.
“The scary scenario is the number of patients who really just don’t know where they were taken,” Landrum said. “It tells me it’s very easy to spread.”
The challenge ahead, he said, would be to convince people that they needed to take significant steps – first – to slow the spread, which could be even worse than before.
“We try to get people to change their behavior to be more socially distant and more limited about their contacts,” Landrum said. “There was a false sense of complacency. And now it’s much harder to do. “