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EDITORIAL: Caution, third COVID-19 wave ahead

York Dispatch Editorial Board

They're calling it the third wave. 

The first was in the spring, peaking in mid-April, when 50 new cases of COVID-19 on April 17 in York County was a shock. 

By the beginning of June, we were seeing daily increases in the single digits, but that didn't last long. June 22 saw 55 new cases, and July 10 had 77. 

The end of August and early September had spikes of more than 100 a day attributed to outbreaks at the York County Prison and at residential facilities. By mid-October, the rolling seven-day average for York County dipped as low as 37 before it started rising again, this time on community spread.

More:WellSpan models: Third COVID-19 wave could hit in early 2021

More:York County has one new COVID-19 death, 126 new cases

More:A winter virus surge seems inevitable. What can we do?

We're in the second wave now, apparently. Wednesday saw 131 new cases in York County, which would have been a record if it weren't for the 146 new cases recorded on Saturday. 

And while that's bad, officials with WellSpan Health are worried that there is worse to come.

They're expecting a third wave of COVID-19 cases in the new year, following holiday gatherings, at the same time as the peak for flu season. The combination could overwhelm the local health care system.

"Whether or not all of our health facilities in the region will have the capacity to deal with both is a question," WellSpan Health President Roxanna Gapstur said Wednesday at a media conference.

After the news of the past couple of weeks, it's hard to think that it will get worse. Since the outbreak began, the U.S. has recorded over 240,000 deaths and more than 10.3 million confirmed infections, with new cases soaring to all-time highs of well over 120,000 per day over the past week, according to The Associated Press. 

Cases per day are on the rise in 49 states, and deaths per day are climbing in 39. A month ago, the U.S. was seeing about 730 COVID-19 deaths per day on average; that is now over 970.

York County's death toll stood at 221 on Thursday, and 73 patients were hospitalized, eight on them on ventilators, according to the state Department of Health. 

The fear is that the number of patients will overtake the resources for caring for them. Right now, 80% of the adult intensive care unit beds in the county are in use, and that's before flu season gets into full swing.. 

By the new year, it could be difficult to find more ICU beds, not only for COVID-19 and flu patients but also for those recovering from a stroke, surgery or other illnesses, and the problem is not just in York County, it's around the country.

Since August, the average number of hospitalizations has increased. On Wednesday, an average of 71 patients have been hospitalized in York County, according to data published by the state Department of Health.

If we had been smart, help would have come sooner. As it is, we have been and will continue playing catch up with this highly infectious, deadly virus. Experts say as many as 500,000 more Americans could die from the virus in the coming months if we continue to relax social distancing and mask requirements — or just ignore the recommendations and mandates, as many people do.

“If this was an actual war that was killing 200,000 people, we would be building bombers, we’d be building missiles,” said Dr. Michael Mina, an infectious disease specialist at Harvard.

Health experts say help is on the way. Pfizer announced good results on its vaccine trials this week. More people are surviving the infection because new treatments are being developed. Rapid, in-home testing will arrive eventually.

We're all suffering from coronavirus fatigue after nearly nine months of working at home, not seeing friends and avoiding crowds. 

But we can work together to protect ourselves and perhaps lessen that third wave by doing when health experts have been saying all along: Wear a mask when you leave home. Avoid crowds, especially indoors. Wash your hands frequently. Keep a safe distance away from other people.

This is the time when we all need to pay attention. Don't be the person who refuses to wear a mask and spreads the virus to others. Don't be the family that hosts a holiday gathering that turns into a super spreader event. 

And at the same time, don't lose hope. By working together, more of us can live to see the end of this pandemic.