As we head into the Northern Hemisphere fall with covid-19 still raging in the US and a number of other parts of the world, two data points provide cause for extra concern.

One is that the seasonal flu—a respiratory viral infection like covid-19—is much more active in the winter. Last year in the US, there were 40 times as many flu cases in the fall and winter months as in the previous spring and summer. Historically, those cooler months see tens of times as many seasonal flu infections in temperate regions. (In tropical regions, the flu tends to peak during the rainy season, though not as strongly.)

The other is that the death toll from the 1918 influenza outbreak—the only pandemic to have killed more Americans than this one so far, and one of the deadliest in global history—was five times as high in the US during the late fall and winter as during the summer.

Clerks in New York City wore masks during the 1918 flu pandemic.NATIONAL ARCHIVES

If the covid pandemic follows those patterns and blows up as we head into winter, the result could easily top 300,000 additional US deaths on top of the more than 200,000 so far, conservatively assuming (based on the 1918 outbreak) four times the rate of covid-19 deaths that we saw this summer.

How likely is that? “We just don’t have the evidence yet with this virus,” says Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. Osterholm notes that some of the key variables defy scientific analysis and prediction. It’s difficult to calculate whether government policy will shift, whether the public will comply with guidelines, when a vaccine may become available, or how effective and well accepted it will be if it does.

Nonetheless, scientists are pulling together a picture of how the pandemic is likely to play out this winter. They are drawing on lab studies and a rapidly growing body of epidemiological data. In particular, they now better understand how lower temperatures and humidity affect the virus, and how different indoor conditions affect its transmission.

The results are not encouraging. “All the factors we associate with colder weather are looking like they will potentially accelerate the virus’s transmission,” says Richard Neher, a computational biologist at the University of Basel in Switzerland, who is developing simulations of how coronavirus

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By: David Rotman
Title: Winter will make the pandemic worse. Here’s what you need to know.
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Published Date: Thu, 08 Oct 2020 09:00:00 +0000

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