US reaching turning point in pandemic amid vaccination concerns

The U.S. appears to be reaching a turning point in the pandemic, as the country sees sharply declining cases amid an increase in vaccinations providing Americans with a sense of hope. 

The country reached its lowest seven-day average for deaths on Monday since July 2020, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) figures, and the average of new cases per day fell below 40,000 for the first time since September. 

Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said the U.S. has “surely turned the corner on the pandemic” nationally as it reaches “one of the lowest levels of cases” since last year.

On Sunday, Jeff Zients, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, told CNN’s “State of the Union” that the country is “turning the corner” in the pandemic, citing millions of Americans who are fully vaccinated and millions more who have received at least one dose. 

Still, officials are cautioning that turning the corner doesn’t mean the pandemic is over. As health experts and administration officials express hopefulness about vaccinations leading to an end to the pandemic, the U.S. is left to balance a growing impatience to return to normalcy with fewer people now getting vaccinated. The U.S. path forward will depend in part on whether it can reignite momentum in vaccinations.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky during a Tuesday Senate hearing praised the “consistent downward” trends in the average daily COVID-19 cases and deaths since January, at 76 percent and 75 percent, respectively. 

“With these cases trending down in the United States and more people getting vaccinated, we are cautiously optimistic. However, globally the pandemic is more severe than ever,” she said, referring to the troubling surge in India.

Much of the remaining challenge is in getting the rest of the U.S. population, who are less eager to be vaccinated, to get shots. About 58 percent of adults currently have at least one dose, and President Biden has called for that to be 70 percent by July 4. 

As the vaccination campaign seeks to get to harder-to-reach people, the average number of daily vaccinations has been falling to about 2 million shots per day, down from over 3 million last month, according to Our World in Data. 

Still, there has been remarkable progress. 

“That’s what vaccinations do,” Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease expert at the University of California-San Francisco, said of the declining cases. “Cases have just gone down … they’re not going to go back up.”

Amid the improving situation, there could soon be a further loosening of restrictions, even on mandates to wear masks indoors. Some Southern states have already lifted almost all restrictions, and even urban areas like New York City and Washington, D.C., are set to lift many capacity limits later this month.   

Gandhi said getting down to two new cases per 100,000 people per day, plus somewhat increased vaccinations, could justify lifting indoor mask mandates. Some states are getting close to that threshold, at around five cases per 100,000. 

Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University, said she is “very optimistic about where we are,” noting the U.S. is “not far behind” Israel,” which has seen a dramatic drop in cases amid its rise in vaccinations. 

However, Wen said she’s concerned that as restrictions are dropped, unvaccinated people won’t have motivation to get their shot. The former Baltimore city health commissioner is calling on health officials to loosen restrictions specifically for vaccinated people to provide incentive, noting “over-caution has a price.”

“I think we can go much further and say that in workplaces, in theaters, in gyms, that if everybody there is fully vaccinated, they don’t need a mask or distancing either,” she said.

Former FDA Scott Gottlieb said on CNBC on Monday that indoor mask mandates could be lifted very soon. 

“We should be lifting the mask ordinances outside in a wholesale fashion,” he said. “I think we should be lifting them in indoor settings as well in many states … We’ve succeeded and met our own goal, we just are reluctant to relax the measures now.”

Biden hinted at actions to model the freedoms brought by vaccinations on Tuesday during a meeting with governors after being asked by Utah Gov. Spencer Cox (R).

“That’s one area where we could use some help from the White House and others, and that is modeling what a fully vaccinated person can do,” Cox said. “I like to state: We have fully vaccinated people; we should start acting like it.”

Biden replied, “We’re just getting there now.”  

“To the degree that I think you’re going to see a more aggressive effort on our part to lay out that once vaccinated, it’s not only you can hug your grandchildren; you can do a lot more,” Biden added.

At the same time that restrictions are lifting, there is still danger in many parts of the U.S. Osterholm cautioned that pockets of the country could potentially see surges in the coming months, especially in states in which less than half the population has received at least one dose. 

One of the concerns is that a lack of vaccinations could allow potentially more dangerous virus variants to spread.

“I think at this point our best hope is that we can continue to get more and more people vaccinated, still knowing however that there’s going to be a sizable proportion of the population who are not going to get vaccinated,” he said. “And this does really continue to pose a risk then for what we might expect to see in terms of ongoing transmission.”

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 vaccine Jeff Zients Joe Biden Rochelle Walensky

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