Public health experts repeatedly warned that celebrating Memorial Day by packing onto beaches, visiting bars and hosting barbecues would lead to an increase in COVID-19 cases. And it seems that’s exactly what happened in several parts of the U.S. Now doctors are concerned about another increase in cases tied to Fourth of July weekend.
Many states, including Florida, Arizona, Alabama and Oregon, saw a spike in COVID-19 cases weeks after Memorial Day — and those case counts continue to rise.
Vacation booking company VRBO recently said in a press release that the company has seen a huge increase in interest in many destination rentals for July Fourth, including homes in states that currently seeing jumps in COVID-19 cases, like Florida, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina and California. “Credit being cooped up over the last few months, but demand for some areas has grown drastically,” the press release says.
But the coronavirus fallout that could follow July Fourth may not play out exactly the same way as Memorial Day, Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily safe to celebrate the holiday in the traditional style, though. Here’s what you need to know.
How much of a role did Memorial Day play in the recent jump in COVID-19 cases?
In order to understand what could happen after the Fourth of July, it’s important to first cover what happened after Memorial Day.
In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott specifically called out the holiday, and the lack of social distancing that happened around it, as a factor in the state’s recent jump in cases. “We think we can also accurately say there has been an increase — especially beginning around the Memorial Day time period and going through a few weeks after that … in people testing positive because they may not be practicing all these safe standards,” Abbott said during a press conference last week, according to CNBC. There are currently 3,700 COVID-19 cases in the past 14 days in Texas—a 141 percent increase over the past two weeks, according to data published Monday night from COVID Exit Strategy.
In Alabama, which according to data from COVID Exit Strategy, has seen a 50 percent jump in cases over the past 14 days, the state’s Department of Public Health linked new outbreaks to large gatherings, “such as those occurring during Memorial Day holiday.”
“COVID-19 spreads quickly, and your actions affect others. More than ever since the pandemic began, we need people to social distance, wear face coverings in public, and practice good respiratory hygiene,” the Alabama Department of Public Health said in a statement.
Other states have seen similar patterns: Oregon’s case count has increased 122 percent in the past two weeks, Arizona’s has grown 154 percent, and Florida’s has jumped 168 percent in that same time frame.
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But it’s unfair to blame the holiday alone for this, Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life. The end of lockdowns in many areas around this time was likely a factor, he says. “It is likely that the relaxing of social distancing that many people started to do around Memorial Day is leading to an increase in cases,” he says. “People are starting to think the pandemic has somehow gotten better or gone away, which it hasn’t.”
“It is, so far, difficult to measure how much public holiday celebrations contribute to COVID-19 transmission,” Jason Yang, assistant professor at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, tells Yahoo Life. “There is tremendous diversity in how people gather and interact in different public functions. There appears to be a correlation in the recent increases in COVID-19 infection with state reopenings and public holidays, but it is difficult to know for sure why these are happening.”
Still, the holiday didn’t help, Adalja says. “Memorial Day was as good an excuse as any for people to go out and do things,” he says.
Watkins stresses that recent increases testing alone hasn’t led to more positive cases, as President Trump recently suggested. “If that were true, we would be seeing a lot of negative results along with positive ones,” he says. “Rather, the reality is that the number of cases is increasing.”
What will happen after the Fourth of July?
Experts fully expect another increase in cases. “Any time people are socially interacting, we’re going to see more cases, and Fourth of July is an opportunity for that,” Adalja says. “This is going to be the new normal any time there is an activity or occasion where people want to be with other people.”
Adalja expects that more cases will start to increase in areas outside of those hot spots as people travel back home from vacation locales where case counts are currently high. “If people get infected on vacation, they’re going to feel sick when they get home,” he says. “And then you may see sprinklings of cases in their hometowns.” People who travel to current COVID-19 hot spots like Arizona, Alabama and Florida are “going to have a higher risk of contracting the virus than those who go to someplace like Vermont, where there aren’t many cases at all,” Adalja says.
But it really boils down to how people approach the holiday, Dr. Cyrus Shahpar, a medical epidemiologist with COVID Exit Strategy and former Epidemic Intelligence Service officer with the Emergency Response and Recovery Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tells Yahoo Life. “The degree to which this could contribute to an increase in cases is dependent on people adhering to prevention measures,” he says. “Being outdoors, spaced out and wearing a mask really cuts down on risk.”
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and a professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, isn’t hopeful that enough people will follow recommendations for reducing the spread of COVID-19. “Since Memorial Day, there’s been a lot of instruction, education and imploring by public health officials locally and nationally for people to wear masks,” he says. “The Fourth of July will be another test. I’m afraid many people are not yet with the program, and I would anticipate once again that we will see images of people enjoying themselves in an unsafe matter. That will likely lead to an increase in cases.”
What can you do to make your Fourth of July as safe as possible?
Whether or not you plan to travel, Schaffner recommends doing your best to practice social distancing, wearing a mask in public and avoiding large groups. “There is still opportunity to have a lot of fun and enjoy the summer if you do those,” he says.
And if you develop any symptoms of COVID-19, Watkins says it’s important to stay home and call your doctor.
Ultimately, it comes down to your risk tolerance. “Trying to avoid the virus at all cost is going to be impossible if you’re interacting socially,” Adalja says. “So, if you go out, try to stay six feet apart from others, wash your hands a lot and wear face coverings as appropriate. That’s basically all you can do until there’s a vaccine.”
For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.
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