Researchers reported Sunday that they identified seven troubling new coronavirus variants circulating in the US, according to Dr. Wilbur Chen, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Maryland Medical School.
“We certainly want to preserve the full efficacy of these vaccines by preventing more variant viruses, but again, these vaccines are effective and they continue to be useful,” Chen, who is a member of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, said.
Since then, Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations have plummeted. Doctors say there are several reasons why:
“One, we came off of really high numbers from the holidays,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health.
“Second, there is pretty good evidence that people are doing a better job of social distancing and mask wearing,” he said.
“The doses that are out there … are mostly first doses, and that will provide incomplete immunity, short-lived immunity,” Offit said. “You need that second dose.”
In the meantime, increased masking — and wider acceptance of wearing masks — has driven Covid-19 numbers down, said Dr. Jonathan Reiner, professor of medicine and surgery at George Washington University.
“This is a consequence, probably, of a much better message uniformly distributed about masking in the United States,” he told CNN on Monday. “More people really than ever before in this pandemic are wearing masks.”
Where the US stands now
The seven-day average of daily new cases is now 90,416 — down from a peak of about 250,000 in early January, according to Johns Hopkins University.
But Covid-19 deaths are still painfully high. More than 42,500 Americans have died from Covid-19 in just the past two weeks. That’s an average of more than 3,000 lives lost every day.
“We’ve had three surges. Whether or not we have a fourth surge is up to us,” said former CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden.
“And the stakes couldn’t be higher — not only in the number of people who could die in the fourth surge, but also in the risk that even more dangerous variants will emerge if there’s more uncontrolled spread.”
“It’s encouraging to see these trends coming down, but they’re coming down from an extraordinarily high place,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told NBC on Sunday.
“If we want to get our children back to school, and I believe we all do, it all depends on how much community spread is out there,” she said.
“We need to all take responsibility to decrease that community spread, including mask wearing, so that we can get our kids and our society back.”
Variants in the US include homegrown strains
There’s also an important lesson from the recent global drop in new Covid-19 cases.
In the past five weeks, “weekly reported cases (have) fallen by almost half,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization.
“This shows that simple public health measures work — even in the presence of variants,” he said.
“What matters now is how we respond to this trend. The fire is not out, but we have reduced its size.”
States still struggle with vaccine supply
Public health experts say the US is now in a race to vaccinate as many Americans as possible before coronavirus strains keep spreading and mutating further.
But supply shortages continue.
“We are monitoring the distribution of doses closely and making adjustments as needed,” Secretary of Health Umair A. Shah said.
“While the limited availability of first doses will be challenging this coming week, focusing on second doses will help pave the way for an improved and more sustainable allocation of vaccines in future weeks.”
In San Francisco, officials said high-volume vaccination site will pause for a week and will reopen “once supply is sufficient to resume operations.”
A second high-volume site expects to resume vaccinations Friday — but only for second doses. A third high-volume vaccine site is set to launch this week, but “with available appointments far below full capacity,” officials said in a news release Sunday.
“The City has the capacity to administer more than 10,000 vaccines per day but lack the vaccine supply,” they added.
Washington state and California are far from alone in their struggles. Officials have said supply will likely remain a challenge for a while, and experts say vaccines will likely not be widely available to the American public until late spring or summer.
“By the end of the summer, we will have enough vaccine in order to vaccinate the entire US population that is eligible,” Walensky, the CDC director, told Fox News on Sunday.
Debates over teacher vaccinations and school reopenings
About 89% of children in the US live in a county considered a red zone with high levels of Covid-19 transmission under new school opening guidelines shared by the CDC on Friday, according to a CNN analysis of federal data.
Red, or “high transmission,” communities are defined by the CDC as counties where there were at least 100 new Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people or a test positivity rate of at least 10% during the past seven days.
The agency’s guidelines did not list vaccination as a “key” strategy for opening schools, focusing instead on measures like masks and physical distancing, among others. Vaccinations for staff and teachers are “an additional layer of protection,” Walensky has said.
If schools in “high transmission” communities cannot “strictly implement all mitigation strategies,” the CDC says all extracurricular activities should be virtual. Plus middle and high schools should stick with virtual learning in these red zones, and elementary schools should maximize physical distance through hybrid learning or reduced attendance.
On Sunday, Walensky told CNN that while vaccination for teachers is not a prerequisite for reopening schools, current CDC guidance does say those who are at higher risk should have virtual options.
“I’m a strong advocate of teachers receiving their vaccinations,” Walensky said. “But we don’t believe it’s a prerequisite for schools to reopen.”
Wen, however, called teacher vaccinations “essential.”
“If we want students to be in school for in-person learning, the least that we can do is to protect the health and well-being of our teachers,” Wen said.
She said teacher vaccinations are especially important because “in so many parts of the country, teachers are already being made to go back to school in poorly-ventilated, cramped areas, with many students who may not always be masking and practicing physical distancing.”
CNN’s Jason Hanna, Amanda Watts, Keith Allen, Ben Tinker, Michael Nedelman, Maggie Fox and Naomi Thomas contributed to this report.
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