If the coronavirus pandemic has shown public health professionals anything, it’s that no one can predict what’s to come next.
“You learn really quickly that none of us are soothsayers,” Dr. James Simmons, a Los Angeles-based hospitalist nurse practitioner, said on Yahoo Finance Live (video above). “You don’t want to be a future teller. Who knows what the future is going to happen? I really point to the Delta variant as a big example of how a lot of places thought we were done with the pandemic. And then Delta popped up and it changed everything. I don’t love to predict the future about this.”
Although vaccination rates in the U.S. have been improving, there has also been a worrying uptick in the number of COVID-19 cases as the country heads into another winter. During that time last year, cases, hospitalizations, and deaths peaked due to people doing more things indoors.
“As the temperatures get colder, even here in Southern California, people move inside,” Simmons said. “This potential of a double whammy of COVID and the flu, which none of us really had exposure to last year — I’m really concerned about that.”
Even so, some cities and states have been lifting mask mandates due to vaccine uptake in their localities, a move that troubles Simmons, who said it’s still too soon.
“My opinion," Simmons said, "based on my experience and what I understand from the data, I think it would be most prudent to wait until after the holidays, to wait until February or March, to lift all of these mask mandates in these different communities, because I think there are so many unknowns coming with the cold weather, with travel increasing, with people going back to the office … We don’t know what we’re up for here in the next couple of months.”
He also stressed that masks work: "If you wear the right mask and you wear it the right way, masking really works. I just think we can’t take that risk yet.”
'The data scares me a little bit'
The constant evolution of the coronavirus has meant that science has had to change with it.
When vaccines were first distributed to the public at the end of 2020, it was thought that it would mean the end of the virus. But the emergence of new variants, especially the Delta variant, made the virus harder to contain.
Simmons noted that “as we learn more about the virus itself, how it behaves, these different variants, the vaccines, as we also come to really appreciate that not only is this a global pandemic on a community scale,” it’s become more apparent that the virus won’t go away quietly.
For example, Minnesota is slightly above the nation’s average in terms of its vaccination rates but is also experiencing a 52% surge in new cases over the past 14 days.
“Minnesota, Texas, for instance, are all going back up,” Simmons said. “I think because the pandemic changes so rapidly, it’s different in every community. The messaging then gets confusing because you hear messaging from a global perspective, a country perspective, a state perspective, a county perspective, your kid’s school perspective, and you might be hearing five or six different things. It’s confusing to everyone, for sure.”
This doesn’t mean that vaccines aren’t working but rather puts the focus on those more vulnerable or unvaccinated, as they account for an overwhelming majority of severe cases.
“It goes back to your community — what is the status in your community?” Simmons said. “The status in terms of what is community transmission and then what is the vaccination rate in your community?
In the meantime, one of Simmons’ biggest concerns as the year ends is the flu season. Last year, with mask mandates in most parts of the country, the number of flu cases reached record lows. But with more places lifting those mandates, it could leave people exposed, especially if they haven’t gotten their flu shots yet.
“We have to look at the data from what we have now,” Simmons said. “And frankly, the data from previous flu seasons and COVID-19, because cases are up 25% in the last three weeks, the data scares me a little bit.”
Adriana Belmonte is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. You can follow her on Twitter @adrianambells and reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.