Why flatlining COVID-19 cases might be good holiday news

Nationwide COVID-19 infections have plateaued after weeks of rapid decline, just as colder weather and the upcoming holidays drive people indoors.

Experts say the country is in a stalemate between increasing vaccinations and the still-spreading delta variant.

Even though infections will likely increase this winter, they say that isn’t a reason to panic.

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Vaccinations are working, and the U.S. likely won't see a major spike like the one that devastated the country this time last year.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the seven-day average of U.S. cases is about 71,500. The numbers have been hovering around 70,000 since Oct. 27.

The highest infection numbers are in states with low vaccination rates, and in unvaccinated pockets of cold weather states. There could be regional spikes, as some areas worsen while others rebound more quickly.  

“If we compare same two months to last year, we see a very different picture. Last year at this time, infection numbers were taking off! Doubling every 3 weeks. We were on a steep acceleration. This year, we have the FAR more contagious Delta. Schools are open. And we're flat!” tweeted Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. 

Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a CNBC interview last week that he expects the pandemic will mostly be over for the majority of the U.S. by early next year.

Gottlieb said he thinks that by Jan. 4, President BidenJoe BidenDeputy AG: DOJ investigating fake Trump electors On The Money — Vaccine-or-test mandate for businesses nixed Warner tests positive for breakthrough COVID-19 case MORE's deadline for a vaccine or test mandate for businesses with at least 100 employees, the U.S. will be transitioning to a lower-level “endemic” situation. 

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The coronavirus is not expected to disappear entirely, he said, but it could settle into a lower-level, constant presence that does not cause the disruption and harm of the past year and a half. 

“By Jan. 4 this pandemic may well be over at least as it relates to the United States after we get through this delta wave of infection. And we'll be in more of an endemic phase of this virus,” Gottlieb said.

The U.S. has seen several different periods of peaks and valleys throughout the course of the pandemic. Many were hopeful that the low point in July, after many states relaxed COVID-19 precautions and vaccines became widely available, signaled the beginning of the end of the pandemic.

But then infections began to spike, as the delta variant became the dominant strain across the country. The people with the most severe cases were largely the unvaccinated, and the states impacted the most by the surge had the highest numbers of unvaccinated residents.

David Dowdy, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said he doesn't think there will be a concrete “victory day.”

“We are never negotiating a peace treaty with COVID. But we are winning, and things are getting better in the big picture,” Dowdy said. 

The delta variant has essentially burned itself out in many of the southern states where it peaked earlier this year. It is now spreading in the Midwest and some parts of the West, but it's being slowed in places with high levels of vaccinations.

“There are going to be people out there who want the goal to be, we’re not gonna have any COVID cases ever, and that's just a fantasy, I think,” Dowdy said. “But if the goal is to make COVID something like the flu, something that makes people sick every year, kills people every year, but we manage as a society, I think these numbers suggest that we're moving in that direction.”

He added that infections are not the best metric anymore to judge how well the U.S. is faring, though he acknowledged that issue has divided many in the public health sphere.

“I personally do not think that we should be looking at cases as our primary metric. Because if someone is positive, but doesn't have any symptoms, if they feel a little bad for two or three days, that to me is not a terrible outcome,” Dowdy said. “You can have long-term consequences, and that's a problem and we should be taking account of that, but we shouldn't be trying to get our cases alone, like mild cases down to zero.”

All experts agreed that improving vaccination rates is the key to stopping transmission and making COVID-19 a more manageable disease.

Children as young as 5 years old are now eligible to be vaccinated, and officials are urging parents to get their kids the shot as soon as possible. 

“The risk of severe COVID remains too high, and too devastating, and vaccination, along with other important preventive measures can protect our children,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle WalenskyRochelle WalenskyDemocrats call on CDC to release demographic breakdowns for long-term COVID-19 patients Study finds high levels of omicron-fighting antibodies four months after Pfizer booster Antisemitic fliers left at hundreds of Miami Beach homes MORE said last week.

“Beyond protection for our children, pediatric vaccination can help us better protect our families and our communities, helping prevent children from bringing a virus home to family members who may be more vulnerable and helping reduce community transmission levels,” she said.