The Latest Covid Surge and How to Make Sense of It

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In today’s The Morning newsletter, David Leonhardt examines the recent increase in coronavirus cases in the United States.

A month ago, Covid-19 cases had begun to rise in a few parts of New England and the Mountain West. But they were still falling in most northern parts of the U.S., as well as in Canada.

That pattern seemed to suggest that a nationwide cold-weather Covid surge was unlikely anytime soon. The prediction models collected by the C.D.C. agreed: They projected continuing declines in U.S. Covid cases during November.

Instead, cases have surged about 30 percent this month.

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Chart shows 7-day daily average.Credit…Source: New York Times database

The seemingly obvious explanation for the recent rise in cases is the weather. As temperatures have dropped, more activities have moved indoors, where the virus tends to spread. And the weather surely plays some role in the surge.

But if the weather were really the dominant cause, the recent Covid patterns would look different. They would more closely match temperature patterns.

As unsatisfying as this is, the full explanation for the surge remains unclear.

The good news is that the virus can also surprise in pleasant ways. This winter, cases are not guaranteed to keep rising. They peaked in early January last winter, before plummeting about 75 percent by late February.

For most people, the vaccines remain remarkably effective at turning Covid into a manageable illness that’s less dangerous than some everyday activities. For most people under 65, the virus may present less risk than a car trip to visit relatives this week.

But for older people, especially those in their 80s and 90s, Covid presents a real risk even after vaccination. It appears to be more dangerous than a typical flu and much more dangerous than time spent riding in a vehicle, based on C.D.C. data.

As a result, older Americans need protection during a surge. The most effective way to protect vulnerable people is through vaccination — not only of them but also of others who might infect them.

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