First, case levels are still as bad as they were during a difficult summer. Second, clues increasingly suggest a more transmissible variant is about to cause trouble.
The country has averaged about 57,400 new Covid-19 cases a day over the last week — down 14% from the week before, and way below the country’s pandemic peak of about 255,380 a day in early January, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
But the current level is similar to that of last summer, on either side of a July peak of more than 67,000 new cases daily — and higher than a September valley of 32,500 from which a torrid fall and winter surge launched.
“We were talking about those numbers (above 50,000) back in the summer with horror. We’ve just gotten so used to astonishingly high levels of transmission, and now it’s down to a roar, but it’s still quite a bit,” Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital, told CNN Tuesday.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has touted getting daily new cases down to well below 10,000 to lower the risk of surges.
In Houston alone, the variant was found in surveillance testing of wastewater at 21 of the city’s 31 treatment plants on February 8; two weeks later, it was found at 31, the city’s chief medical officer, Dr. David Persse, said Monday.
“With these new variants on the rise, we have to be really cautious. … This is not a time to be relaxing those restrictions,” Hotez said Tuesday.
Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sounded a similar note Monday.
“We’re not done yet, Covid isn’t done with us. The variants are still a risk,” Frieden said. “You don’t declare victory in the third quarter.”
“But in our worst scenario, where people stop wearing masks faster, start having gatherings faster, then you can see a surge in April,” he said.
Hospitalizations and deaths also have been declining
Covid-19 hospitalizations and deaths also have been dropping.
The number of Covid-19 patients in US hospitals was around 43,100 as of Sunday, according to the Department of Health and Human Services — nearly half the number seen a month ago.
The country has averaged 1,502 Covid-19 deaths a day in the last week — down 22% from the week prior, the the lowest level since November 30, according to Johns Hopkins.
More state leaders announce eased restrictions
This week, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said he is removing all capacity restrictions on restaurants and a host of other businesses, including retail stores, fitness centers, hair and nail salons, and indoor recreation centers such as casinos and bowling alleys, as of Friday.
Capacity limits on churches and other religious buildings will also be lifted.
Physical distancing will still be required, Hogan said.
“I ask all Wyoming citizens to continue to take personal responsibility for their actions and stay diligent as we look ahead to the warmer months and to the safe resumption of our traditional spring and summer activities,” the governor said in a statement on Monday.
A face-covering protocol will stay in place for K-12 schools, he added.
Other state leaders, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves also announced earlier this month they were doing away with mask mandates.
“Listen to the recommendations of the CDC regarding mitigation methods, wearing of masks, physical distancing,” Fauci told the National League of Cities on Monday. “Listen to what their recommendations are.”
About 60% ages 65 and older have received at least one vaccine dose
About 60% of Americans ages 65 and older, meanwhile, have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, CNN analysis of CDC and US Census Bureau data indicates. That’s a notable proportion, because the risk of severe disease and death increases significantly as a person gets older.
People ages 65-74 are 35 times more likely to be hospitalized, and 1,110 times more likely to die from Covid-19, than someone who is 5-17 years old, according to the CDC. People ages 75-84 are 55 times more likely to be hospitalized, and 2,800 times more likely to die; the likelihood is even higher for ages 85 and above.
Starting Monday, teachers and school staff will be eligible to be vaccinated in all 50 states and Washington, DC. Currently, that group is eligible in 47 states and DC.
The guidance says fully vaccinated people can visit other vaccinated people indoors without masks or physical distancing, can visit indoors with unvaccinated people from a single household without masks or physical distancing — if the unvaccinated people are at low risk for severe disease — and can skip quarantine and testing if they’re exposed to someone who has Covid-19 but are asymptomatic, but should still monitor for symptoms for two weeks.
The CDC also noted its travel recommendations have not changed: it says people should delay travel and stay home. The guidance will continue to be updated, Walensky said on Monday.
Fourth vaccine on the horizon
US biotechnology company Novavax still expects to see results next month from a Phase 3 study of its vaccine candidate in the United States and Mexico, the company said Tuesday.
“I think sometime in the April timeframe we’ll have finished that trial,” Gr. Gregory Glenn, president of research and development, told CNN. “So, we’ll have three pivotal trials testing our vaccine — that’s extremely important for evidence that your vaccine is safe and can work,” Glenn said.
In a Phase 3 trial of the vaccine in the United Kingdom, the vaccine had an overall efficacy of 89.3% and a 95.6% efficacy against the original virus strain. It had 85.6% efficacy against the B.1.1.7 variant.
The company is making the vaccine at 10 sites in eight countries, including two US sites, in North Carolina and Texas, Glenn said.
“They’re all at different stages,” Glenn said. “Some are earlier, but all are up and running and working on the vaccine. So, we expect to have a very large capacity.”
CNN’s Ben Tinker, Kelsie Smith, Virginia Langmaid, Jacqueline Howard, Jen Christensen, Will Brown and Laura Ly contributed to this report.