New coronavirus cases across the United States have tumbled to rates not seen in more than 11 months, sparking optimism that vaccination campaigns are stemming both severe COVID-19 cases and the spread of the virus.
As cases, hospitalizations and deaths steadily dropped this week, pre-pandemic life in America has largely resumed.
However, health experts also cautioned that not enough Americans have been vaccinated to completely extinguish the virus, leaving the potential for new variants that could extend the pandemic.
As the seven-day average for new cases dropped below 30,000 per day this week, Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pointed out cases have not been this low since June 18, 2020. The average number of deaths over the last seven days also dropped to 552 — a rate not seen since July last year. It’s a dramatic drop since the pandemic hit a devastating crescendo in January.
“As each week passes and as we continue to see progress, these data give me hope,” Walensky said Friday at a news conference.
Health experts credit an efficient rollout of vaccines for the turnaround. More than 60% of people over 18 have received at least one shot, and almost half are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. But demand for vaccines has dropped across much of the country. President Joe Biden’s administration is trying to convince other Americans to sign up for shots, using an upbeat message that vaccines offer a return to normal life.
Ohio, New York, Oregon and other states are enticing people to get vaccinated through lottery prizes of up to $5 million.
Across the country, venues and events reopened after shuttering for much of the last year.
“My biggest concern is new strains of the virus and the need to remain vigilant in the months ahead,” said Boston College public health expert Dr. Philip J. Landrigan.
A medical center in Louisiana reported Friday it has identified the state’s first two cases of a COVID-19 variant that has spread widely since being identified in India. The COVID-19 variant has been classified as a “variant of concern” by Britain and the World Health Organization, meaning there is some evidence that it spreads more easily between people, causes more severe disease, or might be less responsive to treatments and vaccines. The variant has also been reported in several other states, including Tennessee, Nebraska and Nevada.
Though Landrigan said the big drop in cases nationwide was “the best news we’ve had on the pandemic” and showed that vaccines are working, he warned that people should remain vigilant for local flare-ups of new cases.
Many states have largely dropped orders to wear masks and stay distanced from other people. Meanwhile, even places such as California — the first state to issue a statewide shutdown as the virus emerged in March 2020 — prepared to remove restrictions on social distancing and business capacity next month.
State health director Dr. Mark Ghaly said Friday the decision was based on dramatically lower virus cases and increased vaccinations.