The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made an impassioned plea to Americans not to let their guard down in the fight against COVID-19, warning of a potential “fourth wave” of the virus as cases in the U.S. rose 10% over the last week.
Speaking during a White House briefing, Dr. Rochelle Walensky grew emotional as she reflected “on the recurring feeling I have of impending doom.”
“We have so much to look forward to, so much promise and potential of where we are and so much reason for hope. But right now, I’m scared,” she said.
Even as the vaccination campaign has ramped up, the number of cases are up about 10% over the past week from the previous week. The seven-day rolling average for daily new cases in the U.S. increased over the past two weeks from 53,670 on March 14 to 63,239 on Sunday, according to Johns Hopkins University.
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New York and New Jersey, once the global epicenter of the outbreak, are back atop the list of U.S. states with the highest rates of infection. New Jersey has crept up by 37% in a little more than a month, to about 23,600 every seven days. About 54,600 people in New York tested positive for the virus in the last week, a number that has begun to inch up recently.
The number of coronavirus deaths and hospitalizations over the last week have also ticked up, Walensky said. The most recent seven-day average is about 4,800 admissions per day, up from 4,600 admissions per day in the prior seven days.
Walensky appealed to elected officials, community leaders and everyday Americans to maintain social distancing measures and mask-wearing.
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“I’m speaking today not necessarily as your CDC director and not only as your CDC director, but as a wife, as a mother, as a daughter, to ask you to just please hold on a little while longer,” Walensky said.
She added: “We are not powerless, we can change this trajectory of the pandemic”
Walensky pointed to an uptick in travel and loosening virus restrictions for the increase in cases. “People want to be done with this. I, too, want to be done with this,” Walensky said.
"We’ve seen surges after every single holiday,” she reiterated: “Please limit travel to essential travel for the time being.”
The lack of improvement or even backsliding in recent weeks has raised concerns that the states are opening too quickly and people are letting down their guard too much, just as potentially more contagious variants of the virus are circulating more widely.
Utah, Alabama, Arkansas and Indiana will end mask mandates in early April, joining states including Arizona, Texas, Mississippi, Montana and Iowa that have eliminated face covering requirements in recent weeks. Some states are allowing businesses to operate at full capacity.
But in Illinois, the state public health director on Friday emphasized the need to keep wearing masks and socially distancing amid an increase in cases and hospitalizations. The single-day total of confirmed and probable cases of the illness topped 3,000 Friday for the first time in seven weeks, and hospitalizations have jumped 15% in the past five days.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said in recent days that he is hitting pause on further loosening of the rules because of New Jersey's resurgence.
Experts worry the public is getting the message that increased vaccination means the state is in the clear, even though only a fraction of the public has completed a full course. Vaccines lessen the risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19, but scientists are still studying how well they prevent the spread of the virus.
“To allow larger groups to gather, to give the message to the public that we’re over the worst and that we can go back to normal is a mistake,” said Bruce Farber, chief of infectious diseases and public health and epidemiology for Northwell Health.
More than 93.6 million people, or 28.2% of the U.S. population, have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, according to the CDC. Some 51.5 million people, or 15.5% of the population, have completed their inoculation.
A government study looking at the real world use of COVID-19 vaccines found their effectiveness was nearly as robust as it was in controlled studies.
The two vaccines available since December — Pfizer and Moderna — were 90% effective after two doses, the CDC reported Monday. In testing, the vaccines were about 95% effective in preventing COVID-19.
“This is very reassuring news,” said the CDC’s Mark Thompson, the study’s lead author. “We have a vaccine that’s working very well.”
The study is the government’s first assessment of how the shots have been working beyond the drugmakers' initial experiments. Results can sometimes change when vaccines are used in larger, more diverse populations outside studies.
With nearly 4,000 participants from six states, the study focused on health care workers, first responders and other front-line workers who had first priority for the shots. They were given nasal swab test kits to use every week to check for signs of infection.
“The evidence base for (currently available) COVID-19 vaccines is already strong, and continues to mount ever higher with studies like this one,” said David Holtgrave, dean of the University at Albany's School of Public Health, in an email.
The study included roughly 2,500 volunteers who got two vaccine doses, about 500 who got one dose and about 1,000 who did not get vaccinated.
The researchers counted 205 infections, with 161 of them in the unvaccinated group. Of the remaining 44, the CDC said 33 of them were in people apparently infected with two weeks of their last shot, the point at which they are considered fully vaccinated.
No one died, and only two were hospitalized. Thompson did not say whether the people hospitalized were vaccinated or not.
“These findings should offer hope to the millions of Americans receiving COVID-19 vaccines each day and to those who will have the opportunity to roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated in the weeks ahead," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, in a statement. "The authorized vaccines are the key tool that will help bring an end to this devastating pandemic.