Even with slowed infection rates and increased vaccinations, officials say another devastating Covid-19 spike could be on the horizon depending on what the United States does next.
“The question that hangs in the balance right now is, will we have a fourth surge?” Dr. Tom Frieden, the former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Thursday. “Every uncontrolled spread increases the risk that there will be dangerous variants that can be more infectious, more deadly, or can escape from immune protection.”
The number of new cases has started to plateau after six straight weeks of decline. Although the fall has come alongside an increase in the administration of vaccines, experts say that they are not the only cause for the lowered numbers.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director expressed concern Friday about the stall in decreasing cases and hospitalizations.
“Over the last few weeks, cases and hospital admissions in the United States have been coming down since early January and deaths had been declining in the past week,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky said at the White House. “But the latest data suggest that these declines may be stalling, potentially leveling off at still a very high number. We at CDC consider this a very concerning shift in the trajectory.”
The most recent seven-day average of cases — about 66,350 — is higher than the average reported on Wednesday, Walensky said, adding, “It is important to remember where we are in the pandemic. Things are tenuous.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, said the United States “has to be careful” when it comes to the spread of disease.
“The point that Dr. Walensky made is critical,” Fauci said. “If we plateau at 70,000, we are at that very precarious position that we were right before the fall surge, where anything that could perturb that could give us another surge.”
States loosen restrictions on salons, stadiums and socialization
Despite caution about paying too much heed to the downward trends of the past few weeks, many states are loosening their restrictions.
By Monday, Wyoming barbershops and salons, including hair, nail and tattoo parlors, will no longer have capacity restrictions, Gov. Mark Gordon said in a statement. Over the next month, the state will also ease other health restrictions, including allowing buffets to resume operation and limiting gatherings to 50 people instead of 25.
In response to “sustained decrease in case counts,” the city of New Orleans is also implementing changes. Beginning on Friday the city is increasing gathering-size limits to 75 people indoors and 150 outdoors, as well as raising table limits and increasing indoor and outdoor stadium capacity limits to 15% and 25%, respectively.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster on Friday said gatherings of more than 250 people no longer need approval, and restaurants will again be allowed to serve alcohol starting Monday.
A particular point of contention has been the reopening of schools: While some officials and parents think the need to have students back in the classroom is urgent, there are teachers who worry it is too soon and not yet safe enough to open campuses.
Officials extend vaccine eligibility and availability
As vaccine eligibility expands, more than half of all doses have gone to people 65 and older, including residents of long-term care facilities, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation released Friday.
Overall, about 41% of people 65 and older in the US have received at least one dose of Covid-19 vaccine, about three times the overall rate of 14%.
In some states, coverage among older adults is even higher, the analysis found.
Twenty-one states and Washington, DC, report vaccination data for people 65 and older. Four of them of them report vaccinating a larger share of their older residents than the national average: North Carolina (49%), Florida (45%), Arizona (44%) and South Carolina (44%).
Starting March 15, teachers and other essential workers in Missouri will be eligible for the vaccine, Gov. Mike Parson said Thursday.
As well as educators and staff of K-12 students, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announced Thursday that adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their caregivers and parents of children with complex medical conditions will be eligible for vaccines on March 8.
And as of Thursday, all people who are older than 16 and have certain comorbidities are eligible for the vaccines in Utah, Gov. Spencer Cox said.
Some states are abandoning the tiers of eligibility and moving to a system based on age alone. In Maine, people 60 and older will be able to get vaccinated starting next week, Gov. Janet Mills said Friday. Each month, a younger group will be eligible.
In Connecticut, those 55 and older can get the vaccine starting Monday, Gov. Ned Lamont said earlier this week.
If Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine gets FDA emergency use authorization this weekend, Biden said it will be rolled out immediately.
FDA advisers were meeting Friday to consider the emergency authorization. CDC advisers are due to meet Sunday to recommend to Walensky whether people could actually get the vaccine.
The existing vaccine from Pfizer could also become easier to distribute quickly, thanks to the FDA agreeing Thursday to allowing it to be transported and stored for up to two weeks at “conventional temperatures” typically found in pharmaceutical freezers.
The company and its partner BioNTech are also responding to the growing threat of variants with new testing to see how well a third dose protects against them.