This Is Why We're About to See the Worst COVID Surge Yet, Experts Warn

"This is a full-on Category 10," one L.A. doctor said. "It's literally World War III."

2020 may finally be over, but we've started 2021 with a more dire coronavirus situation than ever before. With record-breaking numbers reported in many states, the COVID pandemic is continuing to reach dangerous new heights. But as the holidays wind down, experts now warn that the worst is yet to come, with the biggest COVID surge to date likely to arrive in the coming weeks. Due to a lag in reporting created by the holiday season, many experts are now concerned that a backlog of reported cases is about to send numbers skyrocketing on top of what is already a bad situation. Read on to see what this could mean for the coming days, and for more on the red flags that you could be sick, check out The Earliest Signs You Have COVID, According to Johns Hopkins.

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New data will likely show a massive increase in cases.

Doctors and Nurses Taking Care of COVID Patients in ICU

Since the beginning of the pandemic, up-to-date data has been the key to following when and where COVID outbreaks are developing across the country. But medical experts warn that the December holiday season—which saw major celebrations such as Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Year's Eve in close succession—has likely made it harder to get a true idea of the severity of recent spikes as testing centers and laboratory staff take time off. For example, a release of backlog data pushed new daily cases to a record high on Jan. 2.

"Major U.S. holidays act like super-size weekends: For most metrics, we see big drops followed by equally big spikes—neither of which are likely to be accurate measures of what's actually happening across the country," The Atlantic reported on Dec. 31. Experts expect that it will take until mid-January for numbers to be reported accurately. And for more on where things seem worst for now, check out This Is How Bad the COVID Outbreak Is in Your State.

Some backlogs are already beginning to paint a dark picture.

young female doctor adjusting her goggles while wearing face mask and blue nitrile gloves

As some labs reopened after holiday breaks, newly reported data pushed the U.S. past grim milestones, including surpassing 350,000 deaths nationwide. And while hospitalizations only saw a subtle dip over the weekend from the high point of 123,000 on Dec. 31, as many as 20 states weren't reporting complete figures, The Guardian points out.

But already, doctors on the front lines of the pandemic are describing a dire scene. "It's not the volume of patients," Nick Kwan, MD, assistant medical director of emergency services at Alhambra Hospital in Los Angeles County, told the Los Angeles Times. "It's the intensity and sickness of the patients. I've never thought some of these numbers are compatible with life, with patients coming in sicker than you can imagine… This is a full-on Category 10. … It's literally World War III." And for more on areas of concern, check out Dr. Fauci Just Said He's Worried About This One State.

Holiday travel will likely make things worse in the coming weeks.

A young couple wearing face masks while sitting in a transit lounge waiting to travel during the holidays.

Medical experts, like Anthony Fauci, MD, have been warning for months that the extended visits created by the winter holiday season would likely lead to a "surge superimposed on top of a surge" in January. Now, with the TSA reporting a pandemic-high number of travelers through the end of December, experts fear that the worst days are yet to come.

"I think we just have to assume that it's going to be worse," Fauci said during a Jan. 3 interview with ABC News' This Week. He added that "traveling associated with the holiday season" is part of what's made "for a situation that is really terrible." And for more on what's causing numbers to rise, check out Dr. Fauci Just Said These 3 Things Are About to Make COVID Worse.

There are still ways to protect yourself and others from the surge.

A woman wearing a warm jacket and a face mask while standing outside in a city.

Despite the staggeringly high figures, other health experts took time to remind the public that the situation is still far from a lost cause. Namely, making sure to stick to basic health guidelines—such as wearing a mask, hand washing, and social distancing—can have a big effect.

"What we do now matters," U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, MD, said in an interview with CNN on Jan. 3. "If you gathered over the holidays outside of your household without a mask, there are still measures you can take right now. You still can self-quarantine. You still can get tested, knowing that greater than 50 percent of the spread now is among people who are asymptomatic." He added that "if we do that, we will be able to temper this surge." And for more from Adams, check out The Surgeon General Just Issued This Stark Warning About COVID.

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Zachary Mack
Zach is a freelance writer specializing in beer, wine, food, spirits, and travel. He is based in Manhattan. Read more
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