March 3, 2021 -- The next 3 months in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic are “pivotal,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, said during a news briefing Wednesday.
While the rollout of Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose shot as the third vaccine against COVID-19 grants the U.S. more hope for an end to the pandemic, rising infection rates and new, more contagious variants threaten to derail the progress, Walensky and other White House officials said.
“On one hand, cases are leveling off at rates just on the cusp of potential to resurge,” she said. “And on the other hand, stamina has worn thin, fatigue is winning, and the exact measures we have taken to stop the pandemic are now too often being flagrantly ignored.”
If all goes well, everyone in the United States could have access to COVID-19 vaccines in the next 3 or 4 months, she said. But increasing COVID numbers show we are far from out of the woods.
Walensky reported last week that after weeks of declining, COVID-19 rates are now moving in the wrong direction. That continues to hold true -- the most recent 7-day average of cases shows an increase of 3.5%. The 7-day average of COVID-related deaths -- more than 2,000 per day -- shows an increase of 2.2% from the previous numbers.
As national numbers rise, states continue to lift restrictions. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott Tuesday lifted the state’s mask mandate and increased business capacity back to 100%.
“We are in constant conversation with the states,” said White House senior adviser for COVID-19 response Andy Slavitt. “Suffice to say, there are plenty of people and health officials in every state who feel now is the wrong time to lift the mask mandate.”
Later, President Joe Biden himself weighed in. Asked about states loosening restrictions, Biden said it was a "big mistake."
"Masks make a difference," he said, describing their actions as "neanderthal thinking." He also said it's critical to follow the science.
Walensky encouraged residents to continue to practice social distancing, masking, and proper hand-washing, regardless of loosening restrictions.
“Whether mandated or not, as individuals and communities, we can still take the right public health actions,” she said.
The Biden administration continues to ramp up vaccination initiatives, with help from the private sector. More than a dozen of the country’s leading health insurance providers just announced a new pilot program to get 2 million of the most vulnerable seniors vaccinated as fast as possible. The program, called Vaccine Community Connectors, will include calls to unvaccinated seniors in vulnerable areas to answer questions about the vaccines, schedule appointments, and coordinate transportation to and from each vaccination.
To tackle the issue of emerging variants, the White House COVID-19 team is taking what coronavirus czar Anthony Fauci, MD, called a four-pronged approach. Those four prongs include increasing vaccinations with currently available options; and a “booster” approach, which would involve making a third dose of the original vaccine and will be studied by drugmaker Pfizer in a phase I trial.
The third approach is underway at Moderna, which is beginning clinical trials for a booster shot specifically for the coronavirus variant first identified in South Africa. And the final measure is the development of a universal COVID-19 vaccine that would protect against any current and future mutations of the virus.