Prepare for the neverending coronavirus plateau

Some of this plateau can be attributed to increased testing, which may be picking up milder cases that won’t lead to hospitalizations and deaths. There are certainly states where the situation has gotten much better, and fewer new cases are being found than before, such as New York and most of the Northeast. But there are several states, including Texas, Arizona, and North Carolina, where hospitalizations are rising. These states, perhaps not coincidentally, are some of the first to have lifted lockdowns and restrictions on distancing.

It’s absolutely plausible that these or any future outbreaks later on in the year could worsen to the point where much of the U.S. ends up where New York was in April, when hospitals in hard-hit areas were stretched thin and hundreds of residents died every day from covid-19. But it’s also possible that we’ll continue to see an ebb and flow of hotspots in some parts of the country and never a full-on second wave—a patchwork pandemic, as the Atlantic’s Ed Yong has coined it.

These hotspots may emerge in part because of a mismanaged response by states opening up too early without enough precautions, like a sturdy test-and-trace program to stop outbreaks before they start. But they might be also tamped down or prevented by people being compassionate enough to wear masks when in crowded places; businesses and customers adopting consistent rules on keeping physical distance even once they open up; and employers who allow people to keep working from home or to stay home when they feel sick.