U.S. COVID Cases Are Down, but the Virus Isn't in Retreat

COVID cases, deaths and hospitalizations in the U.S. have plummeted in recent weeks. However, experts have told Newsweek it may be too soon to view the pandemic as in retreat, particularly as the threat of new variants looms and people may grow complacent amid the biggest vaccine roll-out in the country's history.

On Sunday, the U.S. reported 72,000 new COVID cases, 67,000 people hospitalized with the disease, and 1,363 deaths, according to the COVID Tracking Project. That was down from the all-time high at the start of January when 1.7 million cases were reported in a week. Similarly, hospitalizations have fallen from their record of 132,000 in early January, and fatalities were down for the second week in a row as of Thursday.

States reported 1.4 million tests, 72k cases, 67k people hospitalized with COVID-19, and 1,363 deaths.4 bar charts showing key COVID-19 metrics for the US over time. pic.twitter.com/bxZ5EFe20H

— The COVID Tracking Project (@COVID19Tracking) February 15, 2021

These figures continue a trend that coincided with former President Donald Trump's last week in office. However, as experts previously told Newsweek, neither he nor President Joe Biden can take credit because the drop was likely an aftereffect of a huge spike in cases following the holiday season late last year, when people went against CDC advice to gather and travel.

The "exponential" decrease in cases was therefore expected, according to Amir Roess, Professor of global health and epidemiology at George Mason University. It is partly due to people gathering less following the holidays, and limited in-person activities at K-12 and higher education institutions, as well as religious services and indoor dining in some parts of the country.

It will take a while to see the effects of vaccines on new case numbers, Roess said. Since the roll-out started in December, over 14 million people have received their two full doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, according to the CDC.

The eight health experts who spoke to Newsweek welcomed the signs that the outbreak appeared to be moving in the right direction. But when asked whether the pandemic is in retreat, as suggested by some news reports, some said it was but most said it was not—although their disagreements were largely semantic. They did, however, all stress the country cannot rest on its laurels, and progress could easily be jeopardized.

While the slope of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths is steadily moving downward, the U.S. is still only back to levels of disease seen in November, which is still higher than any previous moment in the pandemic, said Dr. Manisha Juthani, associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Yale School of Medicine and Yale Medicine infectious diseases specialist.

Jennifer Dowd, associate professor of demography and population health at the University of Oxford, U.K., said: "It's clear we are currently on the downward slope of the current curve, but there are no guarantees that the momentum won't shift back again in the other direction."

Cyclicality is an important factor when understanding why cases are down, according to Dowd. "We've seen this all year with hotspots moving all around the country. What goes up must come down again, but it doesn't necessarily stay down."

Joshua Barocas, an infectious disease physician at Boston Medical Center and assistant professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine, said: "The pandemic does not appear to be in retreat. We are seeing a decline, which is encouraging, but a few data points do not yet make a trend."

A combination of things need to happen for the drop to become sustained, he said, including fewer indoor gatherings where people don't wear face-coverings, such as Super Bowl parties, the federal government providing high-quality masks to people at risk of catching COVID, such as mass transit operators and grocery store workers, and vaccinations.

Rather than complacency, he fears spikes could occur because of a lack of support, such as rent relief and access to child care, that risk pushing people to "choose between life and livelihood."

Easing restrictions too early is another potential pitfall, highlighted by Jagpreet Chhatwal, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School who works on The COVID-19 Simulator forecasting project. States including New York, New Jersey, and Iowa are among those to have relaxed certain rules aimed at preventing the spread of COVID, as well as California, which has emerged as one of the hotspots for the newer, more infectious variant from the U.K. known as B.1.1.7.

According to professor John M. Drake, director of the Center for the Ecology of Infectious Diseases at the University of Georgia, the U.S. won't be "safe" until there are relatively few cases and cases are going down at the same time. "The U.S. is headed in the right direction, but we're not out of the woods yet."

He said: "One of my greatest fears is that people who have been vaccinated will wrongly assume they are now invincible to the virus." While it is known the COVID vaccines available in the U.S. prevent recipients from developing COVID, it is unclear whether they stop the virus from spreading asymptomatically.

Lauren Ancel Meyers, professor at the University of Texas at Austin (UT) and director of the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, was similarly concerned that the vaccination campaign could give a false sense of security to the general public, leading to riskier behavior and changes in policy that could accelerate transmission.

"If we loosen our policies or behavior before a substantial fraction of the population is vaccinated, the pandemic could surge again, and people could die before vaccines reach them," she said.

The presence of variants in the country was a concern for all of experts Newsweek spoke to. The CDC has predicted B.1.1.7, which has linked to over 1,000 U.S. COVID cases, could become the dominant form of the virus in the U.S. by March. Last month, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Biden's chief medical advisor, told Newsweek the variant is likely more widespread than currently known.

Ancel Meyers said: "The variants are absolutely throwing a wrench into our efforts to control the pandemic. The B.1.1.7 variant is likely spreading undetected in most U.S. cities."

Drake said: "Variants are one thing that might threaten our recent gains against the virus. But, so far the evidence shows that these variants are still mostly susceptible to vaccines."

To continue the downward trend, we need to continue following the public health measures recommended throughout the pandemic, according to the experts. The CDC advises wearing a mask in public, staying six feet away from those not living in one's household, washing hands often, and avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated indoor spaces.

"We can't let down our guard," said Juthani. "Not now and not yet."