'We blew it': U.S. reaches 'explosive' COVID-19 spread as virus is nearly impossible to control, experts say

With COVID-19 cases increasing in 46 states, 10 of which broke single-day records for new cases on Thursday, America has officially entered what experts refer to as the “exponential” phase of spread — a rapid multiplying of cases that can’t be contained through traditional measures. On Thursday alone, the U.S. saw 160,000 new cases of the virus, more than any day since the pandemic began.

In California, the second state to surpass 1 million cases, thousands of people in cars lined up at Dodger Stadium on Thursday to get tested; in parts of Washington state, individuals waited four to five hours.

Related: Restrictions grow as pandemic rages in the U.S.

The current spike in cases — which some states are calling a third wave — has brought more than 100,000 new cases a day since Nov. 4. But that’s not counting those that may be going undetected. “We have widespread, uncontrolled COVID-19 in many parts of the country,” says Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “And we know the cases reported are an underestimate of what is out there ... we’re missing many cases because people aren’t getting tested. So the true number is much higher than what we’re actually seeing.”

Exponential spread means an ‘unbelievably high growth rate’

Adalja says that exponential spread means a virus is no longer increasing on a linear scale but is instead spiking at a rapid rate. Dr. Oguzhan Alagoz, an engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who models the spread of infectious diseases, agrees, saying exponential spread refers to an “unbelievably high growth rate.” In this case, that means new COVID-19 cases in many parts of the country are doubling or tripling each week. Part of this, he says, is due to the fact that COVID-19 seems more contagious than other viruses.

With influenza, for example, the R0 (basic reproductive number) — or the average number of people to whom someone spreads a virus — is one to two. With COVID-19, the R0 number has hovered around three. “So say if I infect three people, those three people are going to each infect another three people, and those three are going to infect another three,” Alagoz explains. “This is why it’s multiplying in such a short time.”

Health workers provide free COVID-19 rapid tests in Florida on November 8, where the department of health is reporting the highest increase in daily cases since September 1. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Health workers provide COVID-19 tests on Sunday in Florida, where the Department of Health is reporting the highest increase in daily cases since Sept. 1. (Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Many Midwestern states are seeing exponential growth

Looking closely at the numbers in the U.S., it’s not hard to find examples of exponential spread, both on the national level and among individual states.

According to the COVID Tracking Project, the U.S. surpassed 5 million cases of COVID-19 on Aug. 9, but by Nov. 9 had nearly eclipsed 10 million. In Wisconsin — one of the hardest-hit states — the average number of new cases a day went from 2,800 in early October to nearly triple that this week. In Michigan, another Midwestern state recently affected by the pandemic, active hospitalizations went from 669 in early October to more than 2,000 this week, filling up intensive care units and leading Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to declare it a “dire” situation.

In North Dakota, where a motorcycle rally of nearly 500,000 people in neighboring South Dakota is believed to have set off an outbreak, average daily cases have gone from 400 in early October to 1,800 a day this week. Adalja says spikes like this are dangerous. “When you see an outbreak, it may not necessarily begin with exponential spread, but once you start to get a critical number of cases, then the spread really just takes off in a way that’s really explosive,” he says. “It is a particularly worrisome type of spread because it becomes very hard to control when you’re in that type of a phase of growth.”

Masks are useful, but in this case likely not enough

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, agrees that the U.S. has reached a new level in the pandemic. “The virus is spreading rampantly. I’ve heard someone refer to it as ‘volcanic’ and I think that’s accurate.” Schaffner says that COVID fatigue is likely playing a role, with individuals becoming more lax with social distancing and mask wearing.

He reiterates what officials have been saying for months: that masks can reduce spread up to 80 percent, and that they can protect both the wearer and those around them. Adalja agrees with mask mandates — which have been instituted in more than 34 states — but stresses that there isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” approach to tackling the pandemic. “You have to look and see what’s causing cases in your given area — and it isn’t uniform, because in some places it’s not bars and restaurants, it’s household gatherings,” says Adalja. “So each jurisdiction needs to figure out what activities are leading to spread and focus on those.”

This week, it seems many officials are doing just that. On Thursday, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a stay-at-home order for the city, which requires residents to remain at home unless obtaining critical supplies like groceries or medicine. In New York, where schools are on the verge of shutting down, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an order calling for all restaurants, bars and gyms to close at 10 p.m. beginning on Friday.

Similar curfews have been passed in other hot spots like El Paso, Texas, and Miami. The goal with these curfews is to allow businesses to stay open while limiting both the amount of time that individuals can be exposed and the late night hours in which alcohol may further cloud prevention efforts. Many local leaders, including those in Los Angeles and Milwaukee, have also urged residents to be extremely cautious with Thanksgiving plans and avoid gatherings of over 10 people.

‘You cannot control exponentiality. We blew it; we’re past that’

But while the restrictions and stay-at-home orders may help limit the damage, Dr. Gregory Poland, an infectious disease expert and head of Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group, says it may be too little too late. “We are now exponential. You cannot control exponentiality. We blew it; we’re past that,” Poland tells Yahoo Life. “Now the only options are that something happens with the virus where it dies out, we lock down like many places in Europe are doing, or we find a vaccine that’s highly effective that virtually everybody takes. Those are our only options at this point.”

Pfizer announced this week that its COVID-19 vaccine was more than 90 percent effective in phase III clinical trials, which is promising. Still, with approval likely weeks away and widespread availability not predicted until 2021, the situation in the U.S. — at this point — remains bleak. “I wish I could give you better news,” says Alagoz. “But until we have a vaccine that is available or, as a community, many people change their behavior, I am not expecting that it’s going to slow down.”

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.