White House coronavirus senior adviser Andy Slavitt warned Tuesday that governors who lift Covid-19 restrictions before enough people have been vaccinated are “playing with fire.”
Slavitt was quickly joined by a chorus of public health experts who told NBC News that governors risk sparking another wave of coronavirus infections if they move too fast to return to "normal life" by dispensing with proven Covid-19 protections like mask mandates.
"People seem to forget that while there is a light at the end of the tunnel, we aren’t out of the tunnel yet," added Summer Johnson McGee, who is dean of the University of New Haven's School of Health Sciences.
"If people resume their normal activities and restrictions are rolled back without reaching herd immunity, a fourth wave is guaranteed," McGee said. "When you combine spring break and increased travel with lifted restrictions and Covid fatigue, you have the perfect trifecta for another Covid wave."
The experts spoke out as Covid-19 case numbers have been spiking in Michigan and rising at an alarming rate in states like New Jersey, West Virginia, Hawaii, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, even as the pace at which the vaccines are being distributed across the United States has rapidly accelerated under the Biden administration.
“Look, we’re not out of this pandemic yet. We still have an accelerating threat, and if you’ve been vaccinated, that’s wonderful, I’m really glad about that,” Slavitt told MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle. “But we also have to remember that there’s millions and millions of people who haven’t yet been vaccinated. And so, lifting all these restrictions, telling people not to wear masks, gathering in large crowds, that’s the equivalent of playing with fire.”
Dr. Sadiya Khan, an epidemiologist at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, agreed.
"Even as vaccinations increase and we are seeing millions of people getting their shots, we are still not yet ready for normal life with big gatherings or life without masks," she said. "But, we are so, so close. And focusing on the task at hand of getting vaccines to as many people as possible every day while maintaining all of the safety protocols is still necessary."
The governors of states like Arizona, Connecticut, Maryland, Mississippi, Texas, West Virginia and Wyoming have, in recent weeks, lifted economic restrictions and either loosened — or done away with — safety measures like mask mandates over the objections of most public health experts.
Without naming names, Slavitt said that “the governors around the country, some of them don’t want to have any role in the rescue of our country and our citizens,”
“And the real question is, are we going to participate in that rescue, like the response from the Biden administration, or are we going to just wait and hope science rescues us?” Slavitt said. “And I think we can all work together, we can beat this much quicker.”
Slavitt told Ruhle that the increasingly good news from the vaccination front has lulled too many Americans into the thinking the pandemic is almost over.
“Well look, it's just like last springtime,” Slavitt said. “You look outside, you know. You can't see the virus. You see the vaccinations. And all of that feels good.”
But the message from the Biden administration, Slavitt said, is “we have an accelerated threat, we are accelerating our response.” And, he added, Americans should “hold on for a couple more weeks at least.”
“Within three weeks, 90 percent of Americans will be within five miles of a vaccine, and 90 percent of Americans will be eligible for the vaccines, and by May 1, that will be 100 percent,” he said.
Public health officials, including those working with the Biden administration, have said that more than 70 percent of the total U.S. population (332.5 million) would have to be vaccinated to reach herd immunity.
As of Tuesday, 52.6 million Americans have been fully vaccinated, the latest NBC News figures show.
"There is not enough immunity in the population through infection or vaccination to prevent another large surge, and case levels are still high enough in most places that that can happen rapidly," said Josh Petrie, a research assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. "We don't know for sure whether vaccinated people can transmit the virus if they are exposed, so it is still important for vaccinated people to wear masks and social distance while so many other people are still susceptible."
McGee echoed Petrie on the contentious issue of wearing masks.
"The scientific jury is still out on whether fully vaccinated individuals can transmit Covid-19 to other individuals, so that is a big unknown and a big risk," McGee said. "Until we learn conclusively that transmission isn’t possible, even fully vaccinated individuals need to mask up to protect the health and safety of others."
Meanwhile, a U.S. Census Bureau survey of nearly 80,000 adults from March 3 to March 15 appeared to show vaccine hesitancy was on the decline. It found resistance to getting the Covid-19 vaccine was shrinking rapidly among deeply skeptical groups like Black Americans and in conservative Southern states like Alabama, Louisiana, and South and North Carolina.
Young people, many of whom are only now starting to be vaccinated, still need more convincing, the survey found. Nearly a quarter of those ages 18 to 39 still say they probably won't — or definitely won’t — get a shot. That’s a decline of just 5 percent since January, when the vaccine rollout began.
Public health experts like Marianne Udow-Phillips, who heads the Center for Health Research Transformation at the University of Michigan, have warned that after a year of lockdowns many Americans are contending with “pandemic fatigue” and are fed-up with having to wear masks and are eager to resume their old lives.
"Governors are in a tough spot with a lot of fatigue around restrictions," Petrie added. "But if restrictions are loosened, they need to be eased in a way that still communicates the ongoing risk and importance of continued masking and social distancing when in public."
In Michigan, where Gov. Gretchen Whitman has had to contend with fierce opposition to lockdowns and even a thwarted right-wing plot to kidnap her, a state official said they're trying to do just that.
While the state has seen a surge in new coronavirus cases since Whitmer loosened some of the restrictions and allowed the resumption of previously banned activities, like organized youth sports, "unlike other states like Texas and Florida that have abandoned public health protocols altogether, Michigan continues to have smart health policies in place, such as a mask mandate and capacity limits on large gatherings," Whitmer's press secretary, Bobby Leddy, said in an email to NBC News.
“The state is moving forward with plans to ramp up testing for schools, businesses, and nursing homes," Leddy said. "This is the first week of expanded testing protocols for all student athletes. And we have increased our vaccine program over the last couple of weeks, which has helped us reach a historic milestone of 4 million vaccines in under four months."
Complicating the messaging problem is the legacy left by former President Donald Trump, whose refusal to listen to scientists, his opposition to lockdowns and other health measures, and his steady stream of misinformation about Covid-19 sowed widespread confusion among the American people about how best to combat the pandemic.
The U.S. continues to lead the world with nearly 30.5 million confirmed Covid-19 cases, according to the latest NBC News figures.
The 552,783 coronavirus deaths recorded in the U.S. is also a world-leading figure and equivalent to the populations of cites like Raleigh, North Carolina, or Grand Rapids, Michigan, or Concord, California.