The U.S. may finally have turned a corner in the Covid-19 pandemic, according to epidemiologists and public-health officials.
Newly reported coronavirus cases have declined for three straight weeks, and the seven-day average of Covid-19 PCR tests that returned positive is hovering around 4%, one of its lowest points in the pandemic. Hospitalizations have been declining and reported deaths have fallen every week since late March.
The decrease in nearly every key metric comes as the U.S. meets a benchmark in its vaccination campaign. More than 40% of the adult population is now fully vaccinated, which many public-health experts say is an important threshold where vaccinations gain the upper hand over the virus.
“This vaccination campaign is curbing the spread of Covid-19, saving tens of thousands of lives and allowing millions to start living life more normally once again,” Jeffery Zients, coordinator of the White House Covid-19 Response Team, said Friday. “That’s why it’s so important that we keep pushing for continued progress.”
According to the latest data from Johns Hopkins University, more than half a million Americans have died and more than 32 million contracted Covid-19 during the course of the pandemic.
Daily reported Covid-19 cases in the U.S.
Note: For all 50 states and D.C., U.S. territories and cruises. Last updated
Source: Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering
Daily reported Covid-19 deaths in the U.S.
Notes: For all 50 states and D.C., U.S. territories and cruises. Last updated
Source: Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering
The good news stemming from the vaccines’ broadening impact comes with some concern, as the rate of vaccination in the U.S. slows and as public-health researchers increasingly suggest the U.S. may not reach the blanket protection known as herd immunity.
Vaccine hesitancy remains a concern, and there are significant geographic gaps in vaccinations. New England states, for example, are far ahead of those in the Deep South when it comes to the share of population with at least one dose, federal data show.
Still, a study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week, which included projections from six research groups, estimated that new U.S. Covid-19 cases will fall sharply by the end of July.
“The results remind us that we have the path out of this,” CDC Director
said at a briefing Wednesday. “Models once projecting really grim news now offer reasons to be quite hopeful for what the summer may bring.”
For much of December and January, the U.S. was recording upwards of 150,000 and even 240,000 new coronavirus cases each day. Those numbers have steadily fallen each month since. February saw an average of around 94,000 cases a day. In March, that number went down to 58,000. The average in April went up slightly, to 63,000, only to fall again. In May, the seven-day average fell below 50,000 for the first time since October.
With more than 70% of the oldest, and most vulnerable, Americans fully vaccinated against Covid-19, hospitalizations and deaths are expected to fall, too.
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The number of Covid-19 patients in hospitals across the U.S. hit a record in early January, when nearly 125,000 individuals were hospitalized. Intensive-care units at many major hospitals were at a breaking point. Since then, the drop has largely been continuous, week after week.
The latest CDC data show just over 32,000 Covid-19 patients in the hospital, a decrease of more than 70% from January’s peak. Over the past week, the average number of hospitalizations fell by 9%, according to the CDC.
Reported deaths, which reached a high of more than 3,000 a day at the start of the year, are now averaging around 677.
While the statistics signal a hopeful turn, public-health officials and scientists warn the country isn’t out of the woods.
Andrew Brouwer, an assistant research scientist in epidemiology at the University of Michigan, said there is still a “constant tug-of-war” between factors that will increase the virus’s spread, such as more transmissible variants and reopenings, and factors that decrease it, such as vaccinations and mask use.
May marks a key turning point for U.S. Covid-19 restrictions. According to recent data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 27 states have fully reopened, up from 22 on March 15.
“A large fraction of the population doesn’t have natural or vaccine immunity, so we will probably see smaller, local and regional outbreaks as we continue to reopen,” Dr. Brouwer said.
Kristen Beyer, an associate professor in epidemiology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, echoed those sentiments. “A spike in cases would most likely be more localized to populations with significant vaccine hesitancy or those ineligible,” such as children, she said.
The pace of vaccinations has been slowing, with the U.S. administering an average of 2.1 million doses a day over the past week, compared with 3.4 million doses a day in mid-April. Federal and state officials have retailored their vaccination campaigns to address hesitancy and help eliminate remaining access issues such as not knowing where to get the vaccine or difficulty signing up for appointments.
President Biden recently announced a new goal of having 70% of adults vaccinated with at least one dose by July 4th.
“As long as there are millions unvaccinated or never infected, there can be further upward waves of hospitalizations and deaths,” said Mark S. Dworkin, professor of epidemiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. New waves, he said, can occur through apathy about spacing, masks and ventilation, as well as new strains.
In April, a fresh surge of infections in Michigan, driven in part by the highly transmissible U.K. variant and by younger people, put a damper on the state’s recovery efforts. Oregon, meanwhile, placed a large portion of the state under new restrictions last week, pulling back on recent reopenings after newly reported cases jumped. Both states, which have more than 40% of adults fully vaccinated, have since seen cases subside.
Still, experts such as Saskia Popescu, an assistant professor and infectious disease epidemiologist at George Mason University, are hopeful that the current downward trend will continue.
Dr. Popescu said new guidance from the CDC about what vaccination means, both for people and a new normal, will encourage more Americans to get vaccinated.
Late last month, the federal health agency issued new guidelines for those fully vaccinated, saying they don’t need to wear a mask when walking, exercising, dining or attending small gatherings outside.
“Now more than ever, we need to continue working to increase vaccination rates, decrease cases through public health interventions, and continue to address Covid-19 as a global issue,” Dr. Popescu said.
—Jon Kamp contributed to this article.
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