Federal officials are expressing worry that the decline in daily new coronavirus cases nationwide is starting to flatten as one of the variants, from the U.K., is on the rise.
They warned states against relaxing COVID-19 restrictions, saying the nation remains at a precarious point that could tip into a fourth surge before more people get vaccinated.
“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,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical advisor on the pandemic, told reporters at a briefing Friday. “We don’t want to be people always looking at the dark side of things, but you want to be realistic. So we have to carefully look at what happens over the next week or so with those numbers before you start making the understandable need to relax on certain restrictions.”
Andy Slavitt, senior advisor to the White House COVID-19 Response Team, said, “We couldn’t say it in stronger terms: We think it is a mistake to take our foot off the gas too early, especially when we are accelerating our vaccination efforts right now.”
Since early January, daily new coronavirus cases and COVID-19 hospitalizations have been dropping, but “the latest data suggests that these declines may be stalling, potentially leveling off at still a very high number,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We at CDC consider this a very concerning shift in the trajectory.”
The troubling numbers came a day before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Saturday issued emergency use authorization for a third COVID-19 vaccine, manufactured by Johnson & Johnson.
The nation had an average of about 66,350 new daily coronavirus cases a day over the last week, Walensky said Friday. That’s higher than the figure released Wednesday, which was 64,000 new cases a day.
The number of average daily COVID-19 deaths — about 2,000 a day — is slightly higher than it was a few days ago.
“We are watching these concerning data very closely to see where they will go over the next few days. But it’s important to remember where we are in the pandemic: Things are tenuous. Now is not the time to relax restrictions,” Walensky said. “Cases, hospital admissions and deaths all remain very high, and the recent shift in the pandemic must be taken extremely seriously.”
The recent increase in cases comes as federal officials have voiced alarm about the continued rise in variants nationwide. The increase in cases may be a result of the widening transmission of a variant first identified in Britain, B.1.1.7, that is believed to be 50% more transmissible than the conventional strain of the virus, Walensky said.
The U.K. variant now represents an estimated 10% of coronavirus cases nationwide, Walensky said, up from between 1% to 4% a few weeks ago. Walensky also expressed concern about an emerging variant in New York, B.1.526, and the California variant, B.1.427/B.1.429, which “also appear to spread more easily and are contributing to a large fraction of current infections in those areas, adding urgency to the situation.”
“The virus is not done with us. We cannot get comfortable or give into a false sense of security that the worst of the pandemic is behind us. Not now, not when mass vaccination is so very close,” Walensky said. “I know people are tired. They want to get back to life to normal, but we’re not there yet. Give us time. We need to get more vaccines into our communities and to get more people vaccinated.”
Walensky and other federal officials have repeatedly warned state and local governments against relaxing COVID-19 restrictions too quickly. Walensky has previously said it was too soon for states like Iowa and Montana to lift statewide mask-wearing orders. New York City began to permit indoor restaurant dining at 25% of capacity Feb. 12, and Massachusetts on Monday will lift its capacity limits on restaurants and allow indoor concert halls and theaters to reopen at 50% capacity, with no more than 500 people inside.
“Given the trends that we’ve seen in just the last couple of days, I would say we can’t be in a place where we’re lifting restrictions right now,” Walensky said.
In California, five counties — San Mateo and Marin counties, in the Bay Area; Yolo County, west of Sacramento; and Shasta and Humboldt counties farther north — were allowed by state officials to reopen indoor restaurant dining and indoor gyms to limited capacity this week. Seven counties may be eligible to do so next week: Santa Clara, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo, El Dorado, Napa, Lassen and Modoc.
One of the variants that concerns scientists the most is the strain first identified in South Africa, B.1.351, in which the effect of vaccination is significantly diminished but not obliterated. Fauci said that the pharmaceutical company Moderna this week…