Enemy within: Experts warn US not learning from past pandemic mistakes

A member of the U.S. Navy prepares Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines as Vice President Harris visits a vaccination center in Jacksonville, Fla.
UPI Photo

When it comes to combating COVID-19, experts and officials warn the U.S. is its own worst enemy as governors across the country lift restrictions and the public grows increasingly weary of pandemic life.

The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned Monday that the U.S. is at “a fork in the road” on the pandemic, with the two extremes perhaps best illustrated by spring breakers partying in Florida over the weekend while about 1,000 people are dying of COVID-19 every day.

Despite an aggressive pace of vaccination, the number of new infections across the country is rising in states across the Northeast and Upper Midwest and has essentially plateaued nationally.

Nearly 83 million Americans have gotten at least one vaccine dose to date, including 69 percent of people over the age of 65. Vaccines offer the promise of a return to normality, and the more people get vaccinated, the quicker that can happen.

But more infectious variants of the virus, particularly one first found in the United Kingdom, are adding to the threat of a new spike as they become more prevalent.

Amid those competing factors, governors across the country are lifting restrictions, including capacity limits and mask mandates. Governors from both parties have pointed to the progress made in increasing vaccinations and decreasing hospitalizations as reasons for lifting restrictions, though some are going further than others.

Experts say the U.S. is in a race between vaccines and variants, and by reopening too fast and ignoring public health recommendations, the country may be at risk of losing and bringing on another wave of infections just like the winter.

“We have a hard time learning the lessons of even a few months ago, I think,” said Josh Michaud, associate director for global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Revelers are packing the bars and streets in Miami and other spring break destinations. Miami Beach officials have declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew due to the crowds, which the city’s Democratic mayor partially blamed on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) for throwing open the doors for tourists. 

“The problem is we’re still in the midst of a pandemic. It’s certainly not in our rearview mirror yet by any means and it certainly is not in my county, in my city. So that’s a challenge,” Mayor Dan Gelber (D) said in a CNN interview Monday.

Despite CDC guidance against traveling, the Transportation Security Administration said more than 1.5 million people traveled through U.S. airports on Sunday, the first time since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic that aviation throughput has been this high.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said she needs people to keep following pandemic restrictions.

“Believe me, I get it. We all want to return to our everyday activities and spend time with our family, friends and loved ones, but we must find the fortitude to hang in there for just a little bit longer,” Walensky said Monday during a White House press briefing.

Coronavirus restrictions have taken a heavy economic toll on businesses like bars and restaurants, raising pressure on governors to ease limits.

Michaud said he understands people are tired of taking precautions, but he thinks some governors have jumped the gun. 

“At the first sign of the numbers getting better on the public health side, [governors are] taking that as a cue to open things up,” Michaud said. “And our experience in this country, in so many countries, has been that if that’s done too early and too liberally, then you just open up the potential for more cases.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, both Republicans, pointed to the ongoing vaccination campaign in saying that the time has come to end restrictions.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) said he plans to let the state’s mask mandate expire at the end of the month. On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Hutchinson said the goals he announced in February, which include a positivity rate below 10 percent or fewer than 750 hospitalizations, are being met.

In Connecticut, Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont allowed restaurants, retail and houses of worship to operate at 100 percent capacity while also loosening rules on sports and entertainment venues. Physical distancing and masks are still required, and bars remain closed.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) recently proposed a modified mask mandate beginning on April 4 that would lift the requirement for counties in the “green,” the lowest level of the state’s color-coded dial of restrictions.

Walensky warned that if people don’t take precautions, the country could be headed for an “avoidable surge” of infections. She pointed to Europe, where nations are once again locking down amid a rapid increase in cases that is straining health care systems.

“We are a critical point in this pandemic, a fork in the road, where we as a country must decide which path we are going to take,” Walensky said. “We must act now, and I am worried that if you don’t take the right actions now, we will have another avoidable surge, just as we are seeing in Europe right now.”

Tags Asa Hutchinson coronavirus covid-19 pandemic learn mistakes spring break breakers social distancing masks restrictions loosen mandates Jared Polis Rochelle Walensky Ron DeSantis
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