Nine months into a global pandemic, the U.S. is entering its third wave and seeing case numbers soar higher than they have ever been. The New York Times reported a seven-day average of 207,064 new cases on December 8th, up almost 400 percent from the beginning of September, which was considered the end of the U.S.’s second wave. Hospitalizations and deaths, statistics that typically lag behind an increase in cases, are beginning to rise in the same way. The death toll, such as the 2,923 deaths on December 10, has shattered records daily. For context, 2,977 people were killed in the September 11th, 2001 attacks. 

During the height of the first wave, which peaked in April and May, the New York Times reported roughly 30,000 new cases daily. The second wave was worse, with roughly 65,000 to 70,000 new cases reported per day at its height near the end of July and beginning of August. So far, the data from the third wave far surpass those of the first and second. Throughout the beginning of December, roughly 170,000 to 220,000 new cases were reported each day, with these numbers only projected to increase.

Although many have pointed to an increase in testing capacity as a reason for the reported increases in Coronavirus cases, this is not quite true. To an extent, in places where only confirmed positive cases are reported, increased testing will create the appearance of increased spread. If hospitalizations do not also rise, the increase in reported cases can be attributed to increased testing. However, since hospitalizations have risen during this third wave, this confirms that spread has increased from past waves. 

Experts have long warned that if case numbers rise too high, hospitals and ICUs will be overwhelmed, leading to many preventable deaths. We are beginning to see this scenario playing out in various states across the country, such as California and Texas, where Coronavirus cases have skyrocketed. 

We should not be in this situation. Our governments—local, state, and federal—have failed us. The worst effects of the first and second waves were avoided through shutdowns and strict guidelines. However, this time around, public health measures remain minimal for many states across the country. We must quickly attempt to minimize the effects of an impending crisis. This will require cooperation from the public as well as more leadership from public health officials. State and local governments should not continue pretending everything is fine. Instead, measures such as mask mandates and limiting the capacity of indoor spaces should be widely implemented, combined with measures to protect citizens from financial crises. 

Citizens also need to take responsibility. According to the Washington Post, primary sources of transmission are “casual occasions that may feel deceptively safe… dinner parties, game nights, sleepovers and carpools.” Individuals can prevent the spread of the Coronavirus by wearing a mask, maintaining as much physical distance as possible, limiting their close contacts, and avoiding gatherings indoors. 

Of course, even the simplest protective measures can feel difficult to uphold. We are nine months into a global pandemic that has taken an enormous toll on our mental and physical health, caused mass unemployment, and disproportionately affected communities of color. 

Thankfully, a vaccine is on the way. On December 11th, the FDA authorized Pfizer’s Coronavirus vaccine for emergency use, and distribution began last week. However, early distribution will focus on healthcare workers, and it will be months until the vaccine is widely available enough to achieve herd immunity (a state in which enough of a population has immunity that those who do not will be protected). Until then, it is crucial that we all continue to do what we can to minimize the spread of the coronavirus. The end is in sight, it would be a great shame were we to lose control of the pandemic now.