President Biden‘s announcement that there will be enough vaccines for all adults by May is raising hopes for a return to normal soon.
But the next few months in the pandemic are critical. Concern is growing over moves by some states to lift restrictions already, while new variants of the virus are on the rise in the U.S. Experts warn that actions taken now risk delaying getting back to some semblance of normal.
Health officials are urging restrictions to remain in place for the final stretch, saying that it will not be much longer before the situation markedly improves, and it does not make sense to lift all restrictions when widespread vaccinations are in sight.
Biden on Wednesday issued his most forceful comments to date, calling out the governors of Texas and Mississippi for lifting their states’ mask mandates and all capacity limits on businesses.
He noted that vaccinations for all adults are on the horizon.
“The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that in the meantime everything’s fine, take off your mask, forget it,” he said. “It still matters.”
Estimates differ on when exactly the country might return to something like “normal,” though many say they expect this summer will be much better.
Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said on CNBC on Wednesday that he thinks even as soon as April will be “profoundly better,” given that vaccine supply will have ramped up significantly, allowing vaccine availability to be “wide open” by then.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky on Wednesday put the time frame at three months until the country could be vaccinated.
“The next three months are pivotal,” she said.
Thomas Tsai, a researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said that by summer, “I think we can have a much more, I don’t want to say normal, but at least a ‘new normal’ summer.”
But experts warn that the return to normal could actually be delayed if restrictions are lifted too soon, causing a new spike in cases in the near term.
Tsai likened the current situation to the seventh inning stretch of a baseball game. “Progress has been made; it’s OK to take stock of that,” he said. “How we play the next two innings determines if this is a single game or turns into a doubleheader.”
Maintaining restrictions as people get fatigued and see the end in sight could be a challenge, though, particularly in red states that were skeptical of instituting health restrictions from the start.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, both Republicans, pointed to the ongoing vaccination campaign in saying that the time has come to end restrictions.
“With the medical advancements of vaccines and antibody therapeutic drugs, Texas now has the tools to protect Texans from the virus,” Abbott said Tuesday. “We must now do more to restore livelihoods and normalcy for Texans by opening Texas 100 percent.”
Responding to Biden’s criticism on Wednesday, Reeves added: “Mississippians don’t need handlers.”
“As numbers drop, they can assess their choices and listen to experts,” he added. “I guess I just think we should trust Americans, not insult them.”
Gottlieb argued for a middle ground, saying that public health officials risk having the public simply ignore all guidance if they do not provide a “realistic glide path to a better future,” though March is “a little bit premature” to lift all restrictions.
“March really is a difficult month,” he said. “It sits between two worlds. February was a raging epidemic, it was very clear we needed to have measures in place. I think April’s going to be profoundly better, and March is sitting in the middle.”
Variants of the virus also pose a threat that adds another degree of uncertainty. The most common variant spreading in the US, known as B117, or the United Kingdom variant, responds well to vaccines, but is more infectious.
“The B117 hyper-transmissible variant looms ready to hijack our successes to date,” Walensky said.
Variants first identified in Brazil and South Africa also pose a risk of reducing the effectiveness of the vaccines, though the extent is not fully clear, and vaccine manufacturers are preparing backup plans to provide booster shots or updated vaccines if necessary.
“We are at a critical nexus in the pandemic,” Walensky said. “So much can turn in the next few weeks.”
After weeks of declines, both cases and deaths are ticking up. According to CDC data, the seven-day average of new cases per day, at 66,000, is up 3.5 percent from the past week, and deaths, at just over 2,000 per day, are up 2.2 percent.
Barbara Alexander, president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, issued a statement Wednesday calling on people to continue wearing masks, distancing from others, and avoiding large gatherings.
“All of these measures together will bring us closer to ending the pandemic,” she said. “Abandoning them now will postpone the day we can put COVID-19 behind us.”
Still, the declines in past weeks and the increasing pace of vaccinations is offering some hope after a long year.
“I’m more optimistic than I have been in the last year,” Tsai said.