COVID White House hot spot, vaccine progress, flu season fears: Coronavirus pandemic update

Superspreader events are a growing concern in driving sudden, dramatic upticks in coronavirus infections. Here's why that matters as we head into winter.

Dale Smith Former Associate Writer
Dale Smith is a former Associate Writer on the How-To team at CNET.
Dale Smith
6 min read

Millions of people worldwide have contracted the coronavirus, including US President Donald Trump and a growing list of high-ranking Republican officials.

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The White House is the latest coronavirus hot spot. In the days since President Donald Trump announced he and first lady Melania Trump tested positive for the coronavirus, multiple Trump administration staff, campaign staff, Republican lawmakers and even some White House reporters have been diagnosed with COVID-19 as well. Some experts speculate that this sudden burst of infections surrounding the president could be an example of the type of superspreader event that may be driving the pandemic, possibly triggered by the widespread absence of masks and social distancing at the recent nomination of Supreme Court candidate Amy Coney Barrett.

Over 1 million people are known to have died from the novel coronavirus worldwide, with 20% of those fatalities -- over 200,000 -- occurring in the US, which has over 7 million of the world's more than 34 million active cases. With the US president hospitalized with COVID complications, many wonder how a developed nation with vastly more resources than the world's poorest countries could end up among the hardest hit.

There are other pressing questions besides, like when a coronavirus vaccine will be ready and how the start of flu season in the northern hemisphere could accelerate and complicate the COVID-19's spread. Read on for everything we know now. This story updates often and is intended to provide background information only, not medical advice.

Coronavirus pandemic: The latest news

What is a superspreader event and why is it concerning?

Some health experts have proposed that the main driver of sudden, widespread COVID-19 outbreaks are so-called "superspreader" events, where one infected person ends up infecting dozens and, in some cases, even hundreds of others. During the course of a COVID-19 infection, there's a relatively short period -- about three to four days, according to one doctor -- during which infected people are especially contagious. If such a person comes into close contact with a large number of people during that time, say, by attending a wedding, a party or a Supreme Court nomination ceremony.

Usually superspreader events are indoors, but some have been outdoors (the Rose Garden ceremony was both). Although it hasn't been publicly acknowledged that the Rose Garden gala was a superspreader event, eight of the more than 100 people in attendance have since tested positive for COVID-19.

What's happening with vaccine development?

Teams of scientists around the world are working on dozens of vaccine candidates, with at least one manufacturer -- Pfizer -- saying it expects its vaccine to be distributed in the US before the year's end. But it's still going to be another few years before life goes back to normal, according to some experts.

Until then, mask use and social distancing are still health experts' best advice for avoiding the virus. Masks, which science has repeatedly demonstrated have the potential to mute the spread of coronavirus when worn by 95% of the population, continue to only be used by about 49% of Americans

Social distancing is another key factor, but Americans are still socializing about 80% as much as before the pandemic, according to mobile phone location data. Factor in the research suggesting as few as 10% of infected people account for up to 80% of COVID-19 cases (aka superspreaders) and you've got a recipe for disaster.

Why are experts worried about flu season?

Most public health experts -- including Drs. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- have said they anticipate a big uptick this fall and winter. Even before Trump's COVID diagnosis, the White House has admitted it's preparing for the possibility. Part of that prediction was based on the assumption that the virus would slow down over the summer, however, which did not happen.

Closed Parks due to Coronavirus

A yo-yo effect of reopening and closing is possible until a vaccine is distributed.

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Much of the attention aimed at fall has now shifted to concern over the possibility of two potentially lethal viruses circulating at the same time -- COVID-19 and the seasonal flu, the latter of which kills around 40,000 people in the US per year. Because of certain overlapping symptoms such as fever and a cough, it may be harder for doctors to immediately determine which infection you have.

"The real risk is that we're going to have two circulating respiratory pathogens at the same time," Redfield warned when he spoke to Time Magazine regarding the upcoming flu season. Also, if severe COVID-19 infections continue to push hospitals to the brink of their capacity and capabilities, it may also be harder to care for potentially virulent flu patients.

The CDC is nudging drug manufacturers to produce millions more doses of flu vaccine this year than usual in anticipation of greater demand. Typically, fewer than half of all US adults take the flu vaccine in any given year, but that rate increases to about two out of three for adults over 65, a population the CDC has identified as being at a higher risk for more severe COVID-19 infections

Why do coronavirus case numbers go up and down so much?

"This is like a forest fire, full steam ahead," said renowned epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, who directs the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. "And wherever there's human wood to burn, it'll do it. What we see, though, are these spikes in cases where [lockdowns] ended, or they're not adhering to them."


Although some have blamed the rise in new cases on expanded testing, positivity rates are rising faster than testing alone can account for.

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At one point, about 90% of everyone in the US was under some sort of lockdown order and the curve was starting to flatten. But that all began to change in the second half of April, when a few states started loosening lockdown restrictions. By June, most of the country had almost fully reopened. Not long after, new cases began to surge once again.

Epidemiologists have identified a strong correlation between lockdown and case levels. Basically, wherever you look, cases drop when lockdown orders are issued -- and shoot back up right after restrictions start lifting. The only thing that seems to disrupt the trend is how well an area's population adheres to disease prevention measures like wearing face masks and limiting social gatherings.

Vanderbilt epidemiologist Loren Lipworth told The Washington Post back in July, "As we ease up on restrictions, there is always going to be a resurgence in cases." It's a prediction that is still bearing out.

For more on the coronavirus, here's what's happening with coronavirus vaccine development, what to do if you or someone you live with gets COVID-19 and how to vacation while taking coronavirus precautions this fall.