With each day and each vaccination, the US inches closer to the finish line of what has been a brutal battle against Covid-19.
But it’s not over just yet.
Infection numbers, after weeks of declines, now seem to have plateaued at high levels. The US has averaged more than 60,000 Covid-19 cases daily in the past week. More than 41,000 people remain hospitalized with the virus nationwide, according to the COVID Tracking Project. And an average of more than 1,700 US Covid-19 deaths were reported every day for the past seven days.
And highly contagious variants that are already circulating have experts worried another Covid-19 spike could be just weeks away. More than 2,700 cases of variants first spotted in the UK, South Africa and Brazil have been reported in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — but the agency has cautioned that’s not the total number of cases in the country, but rather those that have been spotted with the help of genomic sequencing.
The vast majority of these cases — at least 2,672 — are the more contagious variant known as B.1.1.7, first spotted in the UK. The variant has been found in 46 states, Puerto Rico and Washington, DC.
“That strain is increasing exponentially, it’s spiking up,” infectious diseases specialist and epidemiologist Dr. Celine Gounder told CNN Saturday. “So we are probably right now on a tipping point of another surge.”
Speaking on the dangers of that variant, Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, warned CNN on Friday, “that virus is about to take off in the United States.”
The variants are a big reason why experts have repeatedly warned that now is the time to double down on measures that work to curb the spread of the virus — and not ease Covid-19 restrictions.
“There are so many reasons why you don’t want to pull back just now,” Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN late last week. “You want to plan that you will be able, within a reasonable time, to pull back. But not at a time when we have circulating variants and when you have what looks like a plateauing of the decline in the cases.”
These states announced loosened restrictions last week
Despite health leaders’ warnings, several state leaders announced they were easing Covid-19 restrictions.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday he was lifting the statewide mask mandate and doing away with any capacity limits on businesses, beginning March 10.
“It is now time to open Texas 100%,” he said.
On the same day, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said he was lifting all county mask mandates and would allow businesses to operate at full capacity without any state-imposed rules.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced revisions to public health orders on Tuesday, including dropping a 300-person limit for events at banquet centers. On Thursday, he said that when the state reaches 50 cases per 100,000 people for two weeks, all health orders will be lifted.
Meanwhile, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer unveiled a series of eased restrictions, including expanded capacity for restaurants, retail, gyms, stadiums and other facilities.
And in Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards also loosened restrictions. The majority of businesses — including restaurants and salons — are now allowed to operate at 75% capacity, while religious services no longer have capacity limits.
On Friday, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey also said he was lifting occupancy limits on businesses — including restaurants, gyms and theaters. A similar announcement came from West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, who said restaurants, bars and other businesses including gyms and museums could begin to operate at 100% of their capacity. Justice also upped the social gathering limit to 100 people.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster issued an executive order Friday rescinding the face covering requirements in state government offices, buildings and facilities as well as in restaurants.
Meanwhile in California, all of the state’s amusement parks, including Disneyland, Magic Mountain and Universal Studios along with sports and concert venues will be allowed to reopen with limited capacity starting April 1, Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly announced Friday.
“We feel like now is the appropriate time to begin to reintroduce these activities in some fashion, and in a guarded way, in a slow and steady way,” Ghaly said.
Here’s how many Americans have been vaccinated
In their announcements for eased restrictions, several state leaders pointed to the growing light at the end of the tunnel and expressed an optimism fueled by the growing vaccination numbers.
But experts have cautioned the US likely still has a few months to go before enough Americans are vaccinated to help suppress the spread of the virus. So far, less than 10% of the country’s population has been fully vaccinated.
Here’s when the US could reach herd immunity through vaccinations alone
More than 57.3 million Americans have received at least their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, CDC data shows. And more than 29.7 million have received two doses of a vaccine, according to the data. That’s roughly 9% of the US population.
The country’s vaccination effort has been in many ways a race against time, experts have said — as state officials work to get as many shots into arms as possible before dangerous variants potentially take over.
Last week, new research offered reassuring news: there’s now more evidence that the B.1.1.7 variant poses little threat to the efficacy of vaccines.
The research, published Thursday, shows that while the variant can hide a little bit from the immune system, it’s not enough to decrease the value of vaccines significantly — and it doesn’t threaten to reinfect people who have recovered from the previous dominant variant of the virus.
“These findings indicate that variant B.1.1.7 is unlikely to be a major concern for current vaccines or for an increased risk of reinfection,” the researchers wrote in their report, published in the journal Cell Host and Microbe.
Receiving both doses in a timely manner is “encouraged for maximum efficacy” in areas where the variant is circulating, the researchers said.