The United States was on the cusp of marking at least 100,000 deaths from the coronavirus, a once-unthinkable toll that now appears to be just the beginning of untold misery in the months ahead as Las Vegas casinos and Walt Disney World make plans to reopen, crowds of unmasked Americans swarm beaches and public health officials predict a resurgence by fall.
The stark reality comes as only half of Americans said they would be willing to get vaccinated if scientists are successful in developing a vaccine, according to a new poll released Wednesday from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, issued a stern warning after viewing video showing Memorial Day crowds gathered at a pool party in Missouri.
“We have a situation in which you see that type of crowding with no mask and people interacting. That’s not prudent and that’s inviting a situation that could get out of control,” he said during an interview Wednesday on CNN. “Don’t start leapfrogging some of the recommendations in the guidelines because that’s really tempting fate and asking for trouble.”
After months of lockdowns in countries around the world, places have begun reopening in stages. Mediterranean beaches and Las Vegas casinos laid out plans to welcome tourists again. Churches began opening up. And humans restless at being cooped up indoors for weeks began venturing outside in droves, often without practicing safe social distancing or wearing protective coverings.
Summertime is already a time when more people head outdoors. This year, it also means the every-four-years national political conventions in the United States where the two major political parties anoint a presidential candidate.
The events generally draw thousands of delegates and others who converge for several days. Fauci said it’s too early to say whether this year’s conventions should be held as normal.
“If we have a really significant diminution in the number of new cases and hospitalizations and we’re at a level where it’s really very low, you might have some capability of gathering,” he said. “But I think we need to reserve judgment right now, because we’re a few months from there. Hopefully we will see that diminution. If we don’t, then I would have significant reservation about that.”
And other public health experts cautioned that even more death is in the offing.
“Despite the terrible losses seen and the many difficulties Americans have faced to date in this pandemic, we’re still probably only in the early stages,” said Josh Michaud, associate director of global health policy with the Kaiser Family Foundation in Washington. “In the U.S. we could be looking at a long pandemic summer with a slow burn of cases and deaths. There’s also reason to be concerned about a new wave of infections in the fall. So, we’re definitely not out of the woods yet.”
South Korea announced a spike in new infections and considered reimposing social distancing restrictions, revealing the setbacks ahead for other nations on the road to reopening. That country reported 40 newly confirmed cases – the biggest daily jump in nearly 50 days.
All but four of the cases were in the densely populated Seoul region, where officials are scrambling to stop transmissions linked to nightclubs, karaoke rooms and a massive e-commerce warehouse. All were reopened last month when social distancing measures were relaxed.
Worldwide, the virus has infected nearly 5.6 million people and killed over 350,000, including about 170,000 in Europe, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University of government reports, which experts say does not show the entire scope of the pandemic. As of Wednesday afternoon, the official tally of deaths in the U.S. stood at 99,674.
In the U.S., President Donald Trump several months ago likened the coronavirus to the flu and dismissed worries that it could lead to so many deaths. The administration’s leading scientists have since warned that as many as 240,000 Americans could die in the country’s outbreak.
According to the AP-NORC poll, about half of Americans said they would get a COVID-19 vaccine if scientists working to create one succeed.
The poll found 31% simply weren’t sure if they’d get vaccinated. Another 1 in 5 said they’d refuse. Among Americans who say they wouldn’t get vaccinated, 7 in 10 worry about safety.
“I am not an anti-vaxxer,” said Melanie Dries, 56, of Colorado Springs, Colorado. But, “to get a COVID-19 vaccine within a year or two … causes me to fear that it won’t be widely tested as to side effects.”
Among those who want a vaccine, the AP-NORC poll found protecting themselves, their family and the community are the top reasons.
“I’m definitely going to get it,” said Brandon Grimes, 35, of Austin, Texas. “As a father who takes care of his family, I think … it’s important for me to get vaccinated as soon as it’s available to better protect my family.”
Most people who get COVID-19 have mild cases and recover. However, the coronavirus has been seen attacking in far stealthier ways – from blood clots to heart and kidney damage.
Whatever the final statistics show about how often it kills, health specialists agree the new coronavirus appears deadlier than the typical flu.
Worldwide, about a dozen COVID-19 vaccine candidates are in early stages of testing or poised to begin.
Comparing how the virus has impacted different countries is tricky, given varying levels of testing and the fact that some coronavirus deaths can be missed. According to figures tracked by Johns Hopkins University, the death rate per 100,000 people is lower in the U.S. than Italy, France and Spain but higher than Germany, China, South Korea, Singapore, Japan, New Zealand and Australia.
“The experience of other countries shows that death at that scale was preventable,” Kaiser Family Foundation’s Michaud said. “To some extent the United States suffers from having a slow start and inconsistent approach. We might have seen a different trajectory if different policies were put into place earlier and more forcefully.”
Countries with low death rates suppressed the virus “through lots of testing, contact tracing and policies to support isolation and quarantine of people at risk,” Michaud said.
The White House said the president was committed to holding a Fourth of July celebration in the nation’s capital even as local officials warned that the region – one of the hardest hit by the coronavirus – will not be ready to hold a major event so soon.
SeaWorld and Walt Disney World plan to reopen to undisclosed limited numbers of tourists in Orlando, Florida, in June and July after months of being shuttered. The plan calls for SeaWorld to open to the public on June 11. Disney plans a tiered reopening, with Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom opening on July 11, followed by Epcot and Hollywood Studios on July 15.
U.S. officials are pushing hard to reopen even as more than a dozen states are still seeing increasing new cases.
Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak announced that casinos can reopen on June 4 after a 10-week shutdown, welcoming tourists to the gambling mecca of Las Vegas. Sisolak had planned to make the announcement at a news conference but scrapped the live event after he learned he was potentially exposed to the virus at a workplace visit.