Another Battle of the Bulge?

THE WHOLE WORLD IS NOW AT WAR WITH THE CORONAVIRUS. From the beginning, I’ve employed warlike terms talking about our frontline workers who have been deep in the trenches of the struggle. The nation is scrambling for resources, ventilators, personnel protection equipment, and even oxygen supplies — much in the same way as happens with a war. In fact, the Defense Production Act has been activated to help in this battle we’ve been waging for a year. And we’ve now lost as many Americans in this pandemic as in World War I and World War II combined. So military analogies are appropriate. 

Which leads me to a true story from World War II that is an apt metaphor for our current situation. It’s about those brave soldiers who are part of what we have come to know as the Greatest Generation. The story occurred in Bastogne, Belgium, six and a half months after Allied troops landed at Normandy on D-Day. Known as the Battle of the Bulge, it was a major German offensive lasting from December 16, 1944, through January 25, 1945. Had it succeeded, it could have crushed the Allied invasion of Europe. 

On December 22, American troops occupying Bastogne were surrounded by a much larger German force. The German commander sent a letter to General Anthony McAuliffe, who was then in command of the US 101st Airborne Division there. “There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honorable surrender of the encircled town,” the letter read. “In order to think it over, a term of two hours will be granted, beginning with the presentation of this note.” 

 “If this proposal should be rejected, one German artillery corps and six heavy A.A. battalions [Flak Corps] are ready to annihilate the US troops near Bastogne,” it continued. “The order for firing and will be given immediately after this two hour term.” 

McAuliffe offered a reply, which he had typed up and centered on one sheet of paper and sent back to the German commander. His message was a single word, “NUTS!” Honest to goodness, this is an absolutely true story. 

“Nuts” was General McAuliffe’s favorite word for nonsense. Think about what he was facing. He had never before confronted such a potentially hopeless situation. His reaction in that moment is what makes this story so worth telling. It would have been understandable for him to consider surrendering. He had hoped reinforcements would come, yet there was no guarantee when they would arrive. He had only his courage. Thousands of lives were at stake, but he was not about to surrender. 

McAuliffe knew that help was on the way but not when it would come. Four days later, the US 4th Armored Division arrived, led by General George Patton. The Germans were beaten back. US armed forces soon prevailed. In war, surrender is the last option.

Right now, we have to recognize that we’re in a Covid war. And surrender is simply not an option. Like the US 4th Armored Division, vaccine is on its way. NUTS to this virus. Yes, surrender is not an option.

WHEN WE’RE ON A DIFFICULT JOURNEY LIKE THIS, we’re always looking for good news. Last April, we had days with 32,000 cases reported per day. And we thought it couldn’t get any worse. The house was on fire. By May, with our efforts to flatten the curve, we got the case numbers down to 20,000 a day. 

But then the summertime pandemic fatigue set in — pandemic anger in some cases — and by mid July we were at 70,000 cases a day, up substantially from 32,000. By September, we had again bent the curve. We got it down to about 26,000 cases a day, close to that previous benchmark, that May baseline, but still up. 

And then it all took off again. On November 20th we surpassed 200,000 cases a day, making 32,000 or 70,000 seem not so bad. On December 3rd, as the Midwestern states began to see a slowing of their case numbers, we got down to 160,000 a day — still over twice the number that we had reached at the height of the July peak. And then the southern states took off again, just as they did in the summer. On December 29th we were back up to 200,000 cases a day — and 300,000 cases five days later. 

And now we’re back down today [5 March 2021], reporting an average of about 68,000 new cases, a decrease of 19 percent over the past 14 days. Deaths are down, too. We’re reporting about 2,000 deaths, down 9 percent in the past 14 days. And hospitalizations are now at about 50,000, down 29 percent over the last 14 days. (These numbers have been updated from the original figures of 28 January 2021.) 

“NUTS to this virus. Surrender is not an option.”

I’ve been asked by the media over and over again, isn’t this good news? And I’d like to say I wish it were good news. But I continue to remember, as I ask my listeners and readers to do, that every one of these cases is somebody who was loved. Every one of these cases is a son or daughter of somebody, or a mother or a father. 

I look at these numbers and say, “Are we accepting 68,000 cases as a baseline from which it’s going to get better?” Or worse? Unfortunately, the new coronavirus variants — such as the B.1.1.7 variant that has been devastating Europe and is now growing rapidly in the United States — are going to change everything. And this baseline is what I fear, more than anything, will become the jumping-off point for what is going to be a major surge in cases over the course of the next 4 to 12 weeks. Even with vaccination.

We have to get ready. The worst is yet to come. Now, that’s hard to say and may sound very depressing, but I will also share with you how we’re going to get through it. We will get through it. Surrender is not an option.

WE HAVE TO BE PREPARED FOR WHAT’S COMING, and I know how hard that is. I hear people all the time saying, “Oh, there he goes again.” But wouldn’t you rather know that this might happen? And if it does happen, we want to be as prepared as we can be. If it doesn’t happen, I will sing Hallelujah from every street corner, admitting I was wrong. In fact, I hope I’m wrong. But I want us to be prepared if I turn out to be right.

In this case, we are still going to see flare-ups in various areas of the country. Right now, for example, we see this in places like New York, South Carolina, and parts of Texas, where they still are seeing high case numbers. That will continue. But I think that what we’re also going to see, for at least the next few weeks, is probably lower numbers nationally, and staying down there. That alone does not give me reason for optimism about where the pandemic is headed. 

Now where are we headed long term? With the vaccines coming online and many people getting vaccinated, I am hopeful for what might occur at the end of this year. But now we’ve got to hunker down. We’ve got to understand where things stand. And so these numbers, while they are surely a lot better than 300,000 cases a day, may in fact be just a harbinger of things to come.

Adapted from: Michael T. Osterholm, Covid-19 Episode 41: “Surrender Is Not an Option,” 28 January 2021. Copyright © 2021 by Michael T. Osterholm/Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. Read More.

See also Dr. Osterholm’s February 19, 2021, interview on PBS-TVs “Firing Line with Margaret Hoover.”

For an in-depth discussion of infectious diseases, epidemics and pandemics, see Michael T. Osterholm and Mark Olshaker, Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs (Little, Brown & Co., 2017). Now published in a paperback edition that includes a new preface on Covid-19. This book is also available at the Orcas Island Public Library.

Image credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Professor Michael T. Osterholm serves as director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota, where he holds the McKnight Endowed Presidential Chair in Public Health. A world-renown epidemiologist, he is coauthor of the book Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs (Little, Brown & Co., 2017), in which he presciently warned of a global pandemic like we are now experiencing. Among his many public-service activities, he recently served on President-elect Joe Biden’s Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board.

1 thought on “Another Battle of the Bulge?”

  1. Michael Riordan

    Michael Osterholm’s guarded warning about a fourth possible wave of Covid-19 in the United States unfortunately appears to be coming true. Average daily confirmed cases of the virus fell below 60,000 nationally and have begun to rise again, exceeding 65,000 last week, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. We are just at the beginning of this new surge, Osterholm said over the weekend on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and “Fox News Sunday”:

    It’s hard to tell, but it seems that a combination of surging variant coronavirus strains and more lax attitudes toward masking and physical distancing — especially among the young — is responsible. Michigan, for example, has been experiencing a truly worrisome surge in cases and hospitalizations, Michael noted.

    Closer to home, Washington state has witnessed an increase in confirmed cases of over 30 percent in the last 14 days, and our positivity rating is back up to 4.4 percent after falling to about 3.5 percent in March. And the variant coronavirus strains are surging, too, especially the B.1.1.7 variant that afflicted Britain and Europe and the B.1.429 variant from California. Both strains are more transmissible than the original coronavirus strains that afflicted most of the world in 2020.

    Even closer to home, Whatcom County has experienced the second highest number of B.1.1.7 cases in the state, second only to much larger King County. This may be due in part to an outbreak of that variant in British Columbia.

    And San Juan County experienced a surge of ten cases last week, essentially all of them on San Juan Island, according to County Department of Health data. Orcas Island’s level of confirmed cases has thankfully remained at 41 since mid-March.

    We cannot let up our guard just yet, despite all our vaccinations.

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