COVID Cases Fell in Donald Trump's Last Week as President. Here's the Sad Reason Why

COVID cases in the U.S. dropped in the final week of Donald Trump's presidency after the country repeatedly broke records for diagnoses, deaths, and hospitalizations in recent months. Experts have told Newsweek President Joe Biden therefore cannot take credit for a dip that may be soon reversed.

According to the COVID Tracking Project, weekly new COVID cases were down by 20 percent in the seven days following January 14. This marked the lowest number of new cases in a non-holiday week since mid-November. Average weekly hospitalizations, meanwhile, fell by 4 percent after rising for 16 consecutive weeks. Deaths, however, remained high. Some 21,301 fatalities were reported that week, the second-highest number in the pandemic.

An update on Tuesday showed the decrease in cases and hospitalizations continuing, which the COVID Tracking Project described as a "hopeful sign."

A hopeful sign: COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to trend downward.

— The COVID Tracking Project (@COVID19Tracking) January 26, 2021

The COVID Tracking Project team wrote on Friday: "Even for the states experiencing the worst outbreaks, we are seeing early indications that the rates of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are easing, though some areas are still reporting dangerously high case and hospitalization levels and wrenching death rates."

The data comes amid a vaccine roll-out recently described as "extremely poor," and as the U.S. continues to lead the world for COVID cases and deaths by a significant amount—having reported more than 25.2 million cases and 421,000 fatalities to date.

Why are COVID cases dropping in the U.S.?

Experts told Newsweek the decline is likely a side effect of the huge spike caused by people going against CDC advice by traveling and gathering during the holiday season. These potential super-spreading events led to a huge increase in cases, according to Amira Roess, professor of global health and epidemiology at George Mason University.

Many experts predicted that there would be a peak of cases than a steady decline around three weeks after the New Year holiday. This is what the COVID Tracking Project data reflects.

Jennifer Dowd, associate professor of demography and population health at the University of Oxford, U.K., previously told Newsweek it was "tragic" and "heartbreaking" that people were risking gathering during the holiday season and potentially losing family members who could have received a vaccine within weeks.

Joshua Barocas, an infectious disease physician at Boston Medical Center and assistant professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine, told Newsweek it is too soon to say the U.S. has turned a corner and to know whether the country is seeing is a "true plateau" that will be followed by a persistent decrease in infections, or if they will rise once again.

"I suspect that until we have mass vaccination, we will see fluctuations in new cases—some weeks up, some weeks down," he said.

Andrew Brouwer, assistant research scientist in the department of epidemiology at the University of Michigan, told Newsweek: "I do not think that we are on the final decline of the epidemic."

The experts said neither Trump nor Biden can take credit for the downward trend. Brouwer said: "The decline in cases is likely a natural ebb after a spike in contacts after the holiday season and not a result of government action.

"The Trump administration worked against establishing a culture of communal public health mitigation strategies, such as social distancing and mask-wearing. It will be challenging for the Biden administration to move the cultural needle, but we'll need to maintain precautions throughout the vaccination campaign."

Barocas said: "While a lot has changed now that Trump is no longer the president, from a pandemic standpoint, it will take a while to see the impacts of the Biden presidency.

"Just because a new president is installed doesn't mean that people magically stop getting infected or start wearing masks when they were not previously."

Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, also told Newsweek it was early to know whether declining cases are a longer-term trend.

"I do not think any politician can take credit for the drop in cases, though they will likely try," he said.

Without naming individuals, Roess said: "Leading up to the holidays the messaging around the seriousness of the virus was confusing at best, negligent at worst. Certainly for half the country the example set forth by the political leaders serving during the holiday season who hosted Christmas gatherings while disregarding the need to wear masks and practice social distancing, and who also encouraged gatherings and rallies without the use of masks likely contributed to the surge in exposures over the holidays, which then contributed to the surge in cases."

She went on: "The impacts of this will continue to be felt as hospital systems continue to strain under the pressure of treating more COVID patients and as deaths increase over the next couple of weeks."

To complicate matters further, any modest gains could be jeopardized by the arrival of new COVID variants from the U.K. and Brazil, said Brouwer and Adalja.

The U.K. variant B.1.1.7, which is thought to be more infectious and may be more deadly than past forms of the virus, has been reported in more than a dozen states. On Monday, a variant from Brazil was detected in the U.S. for the first time, in Minnesota.

"Case incidence will likely plateau, or increase again, especially if more transmissible variants, such as B.1.1.7, become dominant," said Brouwer.

To Barocas and the other experts, it would be premature to see the drop in cases as a sign the pandemic is easing in any significant way, or for any political leader to claim success. "Let's not forget that we're still seeing more than 4,000 deaths per day," he said. "And as far as cases, we're simply back to pre-holiday numbers, which is nothing to become too cheerful about."

This article has been updated with information on Joshua Barocas's title

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A stock image shows a health care worker carrying out a COVID test.