Feb. 26, 2021 -- After several weeks of declining, COVID-19 numbers are back on the rise and new variants continue to emerge, according to White House officials -- just as states begin to lift restrictions and open doors to restaurants and businesses.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, reported during a Friday COVID-19 briefing that coronavirus cases and deaths have increased over the past few days. On Monday, she reported a 7-day average of 66,000 cases and 1,900 deaths per day. Those numbers increased over 4 days to 66,350 and 2,000, respectively.
“The latest data suggest these declines may be stalling, potentially leveling off at a very high number,” Walensky said. “We at CDC consider this a very concerning shift in the trajectory.”
She noted that although the numbers were steadily decreasing for 5 weeks, the decline followed the highest peak of the pandemic that occurred after the holiday season.
Meanwhile, states are moving toward more lax safety measures.
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced Thursday the state would advance to the next phase of reopening next month, with indoor capacity limits for restaurants lifting next week.
In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper nixed the state’s nightly curfew and increased allowable capacity. Governors in states including Mississippi and Texas are considering lifting mask mandates.
“Given the trends we’ve seen in the last couple of days, we can’t be in a place where we’re lifting restrictions right now,” Walensky said.
On top of rising numbers, there are new variants at play, said Anthony Fauci, MD, the White House COVID-19 Response Team's chief medical adviser. Recently discovered strains in California and New York have been added to a growing list of potentially stronger, more contagious variants.
The strain first identified in the U.K. now accounts for 10% of COVID-19 cases in the United States, he said.
“It is increasing in its prevalence now, and by the end of March, it might be the overwhelming strain that is spreading,” Fauci said.
He added that Moderna will start clinical trials for a booster shot that would protect against the variant first seen in South Africa, though he encouraged people to get available vaccines in the meantime rather than wait for the booster.
Despite the rise in numbers, news remains hopeful on the vaccine front: Findings released this week suggest the Janssen/Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine can reduce the risk of an immunized person unknowingly passing along the virus to others. It is expected to receive emergency use authorization over the weekend and will be distributed soon after.
Still, officials encourage states to take a more cautious approach. Although there is temptation to restore some level of normalcy, Fauci said, “we have to be careful … we don’t want to be the people always looking at the dark side, but you want to be realistic.”