The US may be on the verge of another spike in the Covid-19 case, an expert says – a spike health officials have repeatedly warned about as heads of state eased restrictions and lifted several mask mandates.
“I think we will see an increase in the number of infections,” said emergency doctor Dr. Leana Wen told CNN on Wednesday night. “I think what helps this time around is that the most vulnerable – especially nursing home residents and the elderly – are now vaccinated. So we may be able to prevent increases in hospital stays and deaths.”
The first red flag came when case numbers seemed to settle down after weeks of sharp falls – with the country still recording an average of tens of thousands of new cases per day. This type of plateau previously predicted a surge, some experts have said.
However, governors cited fewer Covid-19 cases and more vaccinations while lifting measures to contain the spread of the virus.
Some local leaders also eased restrictions: Chicago officials increased the capacity of bars, restaurants, and other indoor businesses earlier this month, and Baltimore leaders announced on Wednesday that they had lifted restrictions on places like religious establishments, retail stores, and more Shopping malls, fitness centers and catering establishments would loosen. Changes that will take effect next week.
All of this while cases of the worrying variants – particularly the highly contagious variant B.1.1.7 – climbed. The variants have the potential to wipe out all U.S. advances if Americans slack off on security measures, warned Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recently. The B.1.1.7 variant, she said this week, is slated to become the dominant variant in the US by the end of this month or early April.
Despite the warnings, crowds gather during the spring break – Florida officials report too many people and too few masks – and air travel numbers across the country are hitting records from the time of the pandemic.
Now as the country nears 30 million reported infections, cases in 14 states are up more than 10% this week compared to last week, according to data from Johns Hopkins University – with half of those states an increase of more than 10% lists 20%.
“We’re really in a race here,” said Dr. Richard Besser, the CDC’s former acting director, told CNN on Wednesday. “We are in a race to vaccinate the population. At the same time, we are fighting human exhaustion with the restrictions that public health has put in place, and we are fighting the move of so many governors to lift the restrictions that protect us all.”
“These factors are really worrying,” he added.
What is causing some local spikes
According to Johns Hopkins data, Michigan cases are growing the fastest, with an increase of more than 50% this week compared to last. There are also large increases in Delaware, Montana, Alabama and West Virginia.
According to Dr. Jennifer Morse, medical director for the Mid-Michigan District Department of Health, has a long list of factors contributing to the surge in cases in Michigan.
These include resetting restrictions, a prison breakout, fatigue from Covid-19, failure to wear masks, and variant B.1.1.7 that fuels the surge, Morse told CNN. Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer eased restrictions earlier this month and increased capacity limits in restaurants, as well as in retail stores, gyms and other facilities.
“My only hope is that we vaccinated really aggressively and worked through the different vaccination categories quite well,” Morse told CNN. “And I hope this will help (falls) not climb as hard as they did in the fall.”
In West Virginia, Governor Jim Justice said Wednesday that Covid-19 hospital stays in the state had “increased” slightly and urged residents to continue their mitigation efforts “for a while”.
“We have 70 people in intensive care, that’s a bit over,” said Justice.
The judiciary eased restrictions earlier this month, increased capacity in bars, restaurants and other businesses to 100%, and raised the limit for social gatherings.
During Wednesday’s press conference, he added that the state had “seven outbreaks in our community” in five counties.
Church gatherings “can really cause a problem because we’re singing … probably hugging,” said the governor. “When you have decided to go to church, please leave that bench between you and wear your mask.”
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More testing will help stop the spread, CDC says
Even if vaccinations rise, easily accessible and inexpensive coronavirus testing could play a key role in fighting the pandemic, senior health officials said at a hearing for the House’s Energy and Trade Committee on Wednesday.
“You will see more of this soon,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases.
Walensky, the CDC director, added, “I believe once we vaccinate teachers we can use tests in the schools – serial tests, cadence tests – to identify potential infections, asymptomatic infections, close clusters and keep our schools to open.”
Her remarks came the same day the CDC released updated guidelines on testing. More and better tests should help identify asymptomatic cases and control the spread.
The overview guide, Walensky said in a White House briefing, outlines the tests available to detect the virus, how to choose a test, reasons for using, and how vaccinations will affect the tests.
“Importantly, the limited testing capacity so far has led us to use tests for largely diagnostic purposes when someone is showing symptoms or has been exposed,” said Walensky. “Only in select locations have we taken advantage of how tests can be used as a screening intervention with frequent testing to identify asymptomatic diseases and prevent clusters before they begin.”
Almost one in eight Americans is fully vaccinated
In the meantime, vaccinations have sped up as officials try to get as many shots in the arms as quickly as possible.
More than 73.6 million Americans have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, according to CDC data. And more than 39.9 million people are fully vaccinated – roughly 12% of the US population.
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The challenges – including vaccine hesitation, disinformation and inequalities – remain, however, and it is not entirely clear when the US will achieve herd immunity – the point where enough people will be protected from the virus to spread to suppress.
On Wednesday, both Fauci and Walensky pushed back on herd immunity questions, saying a lot depends on how quickly Americans take vaccines.
“Let’s just keep pushing to get as many people as possible vaccinated,” said Fauci. “And when we do, you will see the nature of the infection, the dynamics of the outbreak diminish. Whatever this time is – middle of summer, end of summer, early fall, we ‘ll be a lot, be much better off than we are now. “
Currently, the US still has a long way to go to overcome vaccine hesitation, said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.
Vaccination is the country’s best hope to get out of the pandemic, he said, “and yet there are all these overlays and some of it is politics and some of its conspiracy theories on social media, and some of it is just distrust of everything, what the government had. ” everything that has to do with it. “
“We still have a long way to go to overcome this,” he told CNN on Wednesday.
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Getting vaccines fair is important, according to the CDC
In addition, for the first two and a half months after the vaccines were distributed, districts with high social vulnerability had less vaccine coverage than districts with low social vulnerability. This comes from a study published by the CDC on Wednesday.
The Agency’s Social Vulnerability Index identifies communities in need of additional assistance in an emergency based on more than a dozen indicators in four categories: socioeconomic status, household composition, racial / ethnic minority status, and type of housing.
By March 1, the vaccination rate in countries with low social vulnerability was about 2 percentage points higher than in countries with high social vulnerability – and the differences were largely due to socio-economic differences, particularly differences in the proportion of the population with a high school- Degree and per capita income.
Only five states – Arizona, Montana, Alaska, Minnesota, and West Virginia – had higher coverage in counties with high social vulnerabilities. Best practices in these states have included prioritizing racial / ethnic minority groups in early vaccine coverage, actively monitoring obstacles to vaccination, distributing vaccines to communities at risk, free transportation to vaccination sites, and working with partners in the community, it says the study.
Achieving fair vaccine supplies is an important goal, according to the CDC, which requires “preferential access and management for the most severely affected,” beyond an adequate distribution on a population basis.
CNN’s Brandon Miller, Deidre McPhillips, Melissa Alonso, Naomi Thomas, Nick Neville, Maggie Fox, Adrienne Broaddus and Rebekah Riess contributed to this report.