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OP-ED: The latest COVID wave may peak before Biden's inauguration

Justin Fox
Bloomberg Opinion (TNS)
Pfizer Inc. signage is seen on July 22, 2020 in New York City. Pfizer and German biotechnology firm BioNTech have agreed to supply the U.S. government with 100 million doses of coronavirus vaccine under a $1.95 billion deal. (Jeenah Moon/Getty Images/TNS)

There's a very good chance that, by the time President-elect Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20, the COVID-19 pandemic will be on the retreat. In the meantime, it can still wreak an awful lot of havoc.

The vaccine that Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE announced some very positive news about on Monday is not the main reason for the above assertion. It and the other vaccines in development are unlikely to be rolled out quickly enough to make a huge difference by the third week of January.

No, the reason to think the latest coronavirus wave will be on the wane by late January is because that's what usually happens with winter respiratory disease epidemics. Here's how things have played out during recent flu seasons in the U.S.

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The H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009 peaked even earlier, in late October and early November. Same with the influenza pandemic of 1918. COVID-19 is not the flu — it is much more contagious, for one thing — and there are no guarantees it will follow a similar winter trajectory. But this third wave does have to peak sometime, and given our experience with the disease and its waves so far it seems likely this will happen in the next couple of months.

The job of the coronavirus task force whose membership Biden announced Monday morning, then, will be not so much to battle the third wave of the virus in the U.S. as to mop up after it and manage the vaccine rollout that could prevent a fourth. Biden would appear to have timed the beginning of his presidency quite well, in other words. And outgoing President Donald Trump, whose administration has bungled many aspects of battling the pandemic but clearly been quite effective in encouraging vaccine development, has seen his long run of lucky timing come to an end.

For the moment, though, the U.S. is coping with its biggest wave of coronavirus infections yet. The disease is by all appearances less deadly than it was last spring, but it is also much more widespread. Americans are clearly tired of social distancing — witness the street celebrations in many cities Saturday after the television networks and Associated Press finally concluded Biden had won the election, or Notre Dame fans rushing the field after a victory over Clemson Saturday night. But the rewards to social distancing and mask-wearing and other non-pharmaceutical means of thwarting the spread of COVID-19 have actually gone up sharply with Monday's vaccine news. Just avoid getting the disease for a few more months, and you may never have to get it.

Biden's response to Monday's vaccine news was that "Americans will have to rely on masking, distancing, contact tracing, hand washing and other measures to keep themselves safe well into next year." That sounds about right. He won't be president until Jan. 20, though, and the current president seems quite unlikely to spend the next two months leading a pro-masks campaign. It is, as it has been for most of the past year, up to the rest of us to keep this from getting worse than it has to before it gets better.

— Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of "The Myth of the Rational Market."