Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle WalenskyRochelle WalenskyFDA panel endorses COVID-19 booster shots for older Americans, rejects widespread use Watch live: White House COVID-19 response team holds briefing The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Tight security for Capitol rally; Biden agenda slows MORE on Monday warned states against lifting coronavirus restrictions, pointing to the threat of variants and the "stalling" of recent declines in new cases.
"Our recent declines appear to be stalling, stalling at over 70,000 cases a day," Walensky said at a White House press briefing.
"With these new statistics, I am really worried about reports that more states are rolling back the exact public health measures we have recommended to protect people from COVID-19," she added.
New cases had declined for weeks, from as much as 250,000 per day in January to around 70,000 per day currently. But the declines have leveled off and are now even showing signs of ticking back up. Even 70,000 cases per day is an extremely high level, above the peak of last summer.
At the same time, a range of states have recently been easing restrictions. Massachusetts, for example, is lifting all capacity limits on restaurants this week and reopening concert halls at 50 percent capacity. Iowa and Montana also recently lifted statewide mask mandates, and the Texas governor said he is considering such a move.
And the rise of more contagious variants adds to the risk of a new spike as states ease up. The more infectious variant first found in the United Kingdom has risen to be about 10 percent of cases in the U.S., according to the CDC, up from 1 percent to 4 percent a few weeks ago.
"At this level of cases with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard earned ground we have gained," Walensky said on Monday. "These variants are a very real threat to our people and our progress. Now is not the time to relax the critical safeguards that we know can stop the spread of COVID-19 in our communities, not when we are so close."
The increasing vaccine supply offers the promise of inoculating a large share of the population within a few months, but vaccinations are not yet widespread enough to control the pandemic, making continued precautions critical, experts say.
In addition to the U.K. variant, Anthony FauciAnthony FauciThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats return to disappointment on immigration 'Highest priority' is to vaccinate the unvaccinated, Fauci says Sunday shows - Boosters in the spotlight MORE, the government's top infectious diseases expert, said Monday in response to a question that officials are taking a variant identified in New York "very seriously" and noted that "to a certain extent" it potentially could weaken vaccine protection, which is also a concern with a variant first identified in South Africa.
Walensky also noted deaths have also ticked up recently, to an average of about 2,000 every day.
"We cannot be resigned to 70,000 cases a day, 2,000 daily deaths," she said.