The U.S. is entering Memorial Day weekend this year with a drastically different outlook compared to last year, as officials and experts express a sense of optimism after millions of Americans have been vaccinated against COVID-19.
A year ago, the country was about four months into its public health emergency, with no end in sight, going into the first holiday weekend since most strict stay-at-home orders were lifted. Worries were rampant that the warm weather and loosened restrictions would lead to mass gatherings and spark surges.
But this year, the nation is going into its first holiday weekend with more than half of American adults fully vaccinated and considered immune to the virus, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“We have seen after holiday weekends in the past that cases have risen,” 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 said during a Tuesday briefing. “But well, we've never been in a position where we've had almost half the adults of America vaccinated and protected from this virus.”
The positivity marks a change of pace as public health officials have cautioned throughout the pandemic that holidays could precipitate spikes in cases, hospitalizations and deaths as people gather to celebrate.
The current coronavirus case count is similar to that on the Thursday before Memorial Day last year. The seven-day average was 24,899 COVID-19 cases on May 21, 2020. This year, the seven-day average is 20,882, but that marks a significant downturn in cases since January, according to the CDC.
Despite the comparable case numbers, the U.S. is in a “much better place” since last year when “essentially everybody was still susceptible” to the virus and lacking immunity, according to Justin Lessler, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“It's less likely that Memorial Day weekend activities will feed explosive outbreaks or cause super spreading, particularly if people are cautious,” he said.
Still, experts warn that the pandemic has not ended, so if unvaccinated people participate in risky behavior over the weekend, parts of the U.S. could experience outbreaks.
Walensky earlier this week reminded unvaccinated people that they “remain at risk of infection” and should continue to wear a mask and practice socially distancing. Fully vaccinated people, on the other hand, are considered “protected” and should “enjoy your Memorial Day.”
The weekend comes a few weeks after the CDC relaxed guidance on mask wearing for fully vaccinated people, saying they do not have to cover their faces in most indoor and outdoor settings. A person is considered fully vaccinated two weeks after their second Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna shot or two weeks after the single Johnson & Johnson shot.
Director of the American Public Health Association Georges Benjamin said he has concerns that unvaccinated and partially vaccinated people will gather in large groups and follow the guidance designated for fully vaccinated people.
“I do think we still run the risk of people not really understanding where we really are in the epidemic and underestimating the risk we still have for big outbreaks in the country,” Benjamin said.
“If anything has taught us the risk of underestimating the ferociousness of this disease’s transmissibility ... look at India,” he added, noting that while the U.S. has a better vaccination rate nationwide, some pockets of the country remain mostly unvaccinated.
Nationwide, vaccinations have declined as the most eager recipients have already gotten their shots, and the pool of unvaccinated people enthusiastic about getting their vaccine is shrinking, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) poll released Friday.
But experts overall agreed that any outbreaks would be localized and not lead to an upward trend in cases across the country.
Josh Michaud, an associate director for global health policy at KFF, said he doesn’t expect events this weekend to change the U.S.'s overall recovery trajectory.
“I don't think there's any reason to believe that we're going to be approaching the levels of transmission that we saw, say during the summer of last year, in many states, especially in the South and West, because of the fact that so many people are vaccinated,” he said.
On Friday, the U.S. reached the milestone of half of its total population receiving at least one dose.
More than 133 million Americans 12 and older are fully vaccinated, with more than 166 million receiving at least one dose as of Friday, amounting to 59.3 percent and 47.7 percent of the eligible population, respectively.
Lessler of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health said people should remember that the “virus is still here” during the weekend.
“We're winning the fight with immunity, but the virus is still here,” he said. “Even though I think immunity is going to triumph in the short term, we can always make it go a little bit faster and even moderate levels of caution can help that happen.”