Holiday Wave Or Wavelet?

[ Posted Tuesday, November 23rd, 2021 – 18:01 UTC ]

Are we at the start of a new fifth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, or is it perhaps just a little bump in the road -- a wavelet instead of a wave? At this point it is impossible to tell, as the data seems to be at an inflection point and could go either way. Add to that the upcoming holiday season, and it's really anyone's guess where we'll be in January.

The fourth wave -- the Delta wave -- crested right as September began. At the high point, the daily new case average was about 160,000 per day. That's bad, but it wasn't as bad as the third wave, which hit last winter (and was exacerbated by all the holiday travel and get-togethers). The third wave was the worst point of the entire pandemic, topping 250,000 new cases per day in early January of this year. But since January, the vaccine has helped make it much harder for the virus (even the Delta variant) to spread.

We are almost at 60 percent of all Americans fully vaccinated. Right before the vaccine was approved for children ages 5 to 11, over 70 percent of adults had been fully vaccinated and over 80 percent had gotten at least their first shot. That is a monumental difference from last winter, obviously.

Another good sign is that the amount of shots given per day has spiked upwards as well this month. This is mainly due to two factors -- the approval of booster shots for everyone who wants one and the approval for children down to five years old. During the first week that the younger children were eligible, a full 10 percent of them got their first shot, which is encouraging. The total number of shots given per day had fallen this summer to around 500,000, but in the last week it hit 1.9 million again (for comparison, the highest rate ever hit was 3.3 million shots per day, back in April).

The total number of COVID cases during the entire pandemic is close to hitting 50 million, which also adds to the effort to reach "herd immunity." Natural immunity is nowhere near as strong as the vaccine (amazingly, some people who already have had COVID and know it can indeed happen to them still haven't gotten vaccinated), but it does help.

Even with all the holdouts who haven't gotten their "Fauci ouchie" shot yet, America is a lot better prepared for any winter surge in the pandemic. No matter what happens in the next two months, it almost certainly won't be as bad as last year's third wave. And that is good news indeed.

But we still could be on the brink of a fifth wave. All throughout September and October, the daily new case rate fell, but not as steeply as the falloff from the fourth wave. As November began, we hit a plateau of just over 70,000 new cases per day (on average). This is higher than the plateau we hit at the end of the fourth wave, which was in the range of 55,000-70,000 daily new cases.

But then in the last two weeks, the rate started climbing upwards again, to reach just over 90,000 per day. That's obviously a worrisome sign. This is where we get into pure speculation, since there isn't enough data at this point to predict what will happen next.

The past few days, the increase seems to have slowed. The slope of the line upward all month has not been as steep as in the past two waves, which may be a direct result of the increase in vaccination. Instead of drastically shooting upward, it was a more gradual climb this time around. And the numbers may be topping out at around 93,000 to 95,000. This wave really began in the upper Mountain states (Montana, Wyoming) and has spread southwards and eastwards -- the new hotspots are in places like Michigan and New Mexico. The South, which fueled most of the fourth wave, has barely been hit at all recently. The West Coast is similarly quiet.

What happens next is, as I initially said, impossible to predict. There will almost certainly be a big dip in the numbers over the Thanksgiving weekend, but this is due not to an actual change in the pandemic but because people will be travelling and vacationing rather than getting tested (except in the most extreme cases). Also, the people compiling these statistics will also mostly be on vacation, so the numbers will drop off as a result of this, and then immediately spike upwards as the data backlog is cleared early next week. This happened last year during both Thanksgiving and the Christmas/New Year's week, and will likely happen again in the same way this time.

But after the holiday anomalies work themselves out, will we see a continuation of the trend upwards? Will all that travel and visiting spread the virus faster? It seems likely, but it almost certainly won't be anywhere near as severe as last year.

If we beat the odds, however, and if the holiday doesn't fuel the spike too much, then this might not even be the start of an actual wave. After the third wave last winter, there was a drawn-out plateau and then a tiny rise, but then the numbers fell steadily through the summer, right up until when the Delta variant hit. If we're lucky, perhaps that will happen this time too -- a wavelet that crests at perhaps 100,000 or 110,000 cases per day followed by a gradual decline for the rest of the winter.

The numbers are certainly worth watching (I've returned to doomscrolling them daily, since Delta hit), but perhaps not totally alarming. This period last year, as people spent much more time indoors because of the weather and much more time intermingling with others because of the holidays, we saw the worst wave of the pandemic hit. But this year should be a lot better, even if a fifth wave does actually develop. By mid-January, hopefully the numbers will start heading downwards once again and we'll finally see the new case rate drop below 50,000 per day once again. And that will be something to be thankful for indeed.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


8 Comments on “Holiday Wave Or Wavelet?”

  1. [1] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    i think a large part of biden's loss of momentum has to do with covid fatigue, which i think is also a large part of why it's been tougher than expected to sell his economic record (which to be frank is pretty stellar, all things considered).

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    stellar, indeed!

    so, Joshua, why do you think only 39% of the American people think Biden is handling the economy effectively?

  3. [3] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    (my answer is in the previous post and has to do with the Dems' chronically inept ability to communicate, essentially)

  4. [4] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    people tend to view the economy through the lens of their own economic interactions. a lot of businesses are still closed or at limited capacity due to the virus. and of course, also due to all the people who still refuse to take proper precautions to prevent it. if covid finally fades into the background, the positive impact of biden's stimulus will be a lot easier to sell.


  5. [5] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I would agree with that but, still, I'm left wondering why Democrats, over the decades, can't seem to make the obvious argument as to why they are better stewards of the economy and all that is entailed in that, especially in the face of all of the decades of evidence they have in their favour.

  6. [6] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    i agree completely about the problem, but the solution is not to demand some arbitrary litmus test for a campaign's donors.

    the solution is pie.


  7. [7] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    the short answer is best summed up by will rogers:

    I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.

  8. [8] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Right. Well, good luck to them, then. Heh.

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