All the things that could prolong the COVID-19 pandemic — that could make this virus a part of our lives longer than anyone wants — are playing out right in front of our eyes.
Driving the news: The British variant is driving another surge in cases in Michigan, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has resisted reimposing any of the lockdown measures she embraced earlier in the pandemic.
Variants are beginning to infect more kids — “a brand new ball game,” as University of Minnesota epidemiologist Michael Osterholm recently put it.
New research confirms that our existing vaccines don’t work as well against the South African variant.
And some experts fear the pace of vaccinations in the U.S. is about to slow down.
Between the lines:The concern isn’t necessarily that the facts on the ground right now could end up being disastrous, but rather that we’re getting a preview of the longer, darker coronavirus future the U.S. may face without sufficient vaccinations.
If we don’t control the virus well enough, then even years into the future, we could be living through more new variants — some of which might be more deadly, some of which might be more resistant to vaccines, some of which might be more dangerous for certain specific populations.
That would translate into an ongoing risk of illness or potentially death for unvaccinated people and new races to reformulate vaccines as new variants keep emerging.
And it would lead to a world in which today’s vaccine-eager population would have to stay on top of those emerging risks, get booster shots when they’re available, and perhaps revive some of the pandemic’s social-distancing measures, in order to stay safe.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky finds herself in a delicate position as she seeks to balance the optimism of increasing vaccinations with the reality that the U.S. is still very much in the grip of a deadly pandemic.
Walensky started the CDC job with a reputation as a savvy communicator, tasked with salvaging the reputation of an agency that took a beating under the Trump administration.
“When I first started at CDC about two months ago, I made a promise to you: I would tell you the truth, even if it was not the news we wanted to hear,” Walensky told reporters recently.
Walensky’s expertise is in HIV research, like her predecessor Robert Redfield, and before being appointed to lead the CDC, she was head of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital.
While former colleagues say Walensky is the perfect fit for the CDC post, her skills are now being put to the test as she faces criticism for being both too negative and too hopeful.
“She is quite a compelling and clear communicator, but it’s a challenging set of messages to try and get out there,” said Chris Beyrer, a professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Public health messaging during a global pandemic is complicated enough, but experts say this particular moment is especially difficult.
After weeks of decline and then stagnation, the rate of coronavirus infections has once again started to climb across much of the country. Cases are up about 12 percent nationally compared with the previous week, averaging around 62,000 cases per day, according to the CDC.
At the same time, nearly 100 million Americans have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. Many states are expanding vaccine eligibility, in some instances to all adults, and federal health officials say there will be enough supply for everyone to be vaccinated by the end of May.
Walensky tried to emphasize both aspects this week when she issued an emotional appeal to the public.
“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,” Walensky said, adding that she had a “sense of impending doom” if people continued to ignore public health precautions.
Yet almost in the next breath, she talked about a “tremendously encouraging” new study showing that vaccinated people were 90 percent protected from infection, meaning they pose an extremely low risk of spreading the virus.
While that may come across as mixed messaging, experts say it accurately reflects not only where things stand right now but also how the country has been reacting to the virus for the past year.
“Whiplash is a true reflection of how we’re all experiencing the epidemic and the response to it. So I’d rather she be honest about that and others be honest about that than give people something that they want … to make them feel better,” said Judith Auerbach, a professor in the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine.
Auerbach, who previously worked with Walensky on HIV research, praised the director’s openness, which she said had been missing from agency leadership during the Trump administration.
“She’s being really honest about her own emotions. That’s hard for a fed to do and get away with,” Auerbach said. “The science that says we all still need to be, in fact, quite scared because we’re in this race between the vaccines … versus the emergence of these variants, and she felt it at a visceral level, and she conveyed that in a way that I thought was quite telling.”
Glen Nowak, director of the Center for Health and Risk Communication at the University of Georgia and a former CDC media relations director, said Walensky’s candor helps establish credibility.
“She has embraced the fact that credibility comes from being transparent and honest and genuine about your fears and your concerns,” Nowak said.
The CDC declined to make Walensky available for an interview, but in a statement to The Hill, an agency spokesman said every communication reflects the latest science and epidemiology.
“At times, moments must balance hope that we will move out of the pandemic with the reality that we are not out of it yet,” the spokesman said.
“We acknowledge the challenge of conveying such hope and promise that vaccines offer with the reality that cases and deaths are rising. While we are sending the critical message that people cannot and should not let up on their prevention measures, we do remain very optimistic about what the future of a fully vaccinated public will offer,” the spokesman added.
On Friday, Walensky again came under criticism for her messaging. In updated guidance, the CDC said it is safe for people who have been fully vaccinated to travel.
But Walensky struck a cautionary tone by saying the CDC still recommends anyone, vaccinated or not, avoid nonessential travel because infection numbers are so high.
“We know that right now we have a surging number of cases,” Walensky said during a White House briefing. “I would advocate against general travel overall. Our guidance is silent on recommending or not recommending fully vaccinated people travel. Our guidance speaks to the safety of doing so.”
Nowak said part of what makes public health messaging so difficult is the fact that science doesn’t always deal in absolutes and that the public overall doesn’t do well with nuance.
“Often people don’t want to listen to the nuance; they want advice and guidance to be stable. They get frustrated with the changes or when it seems to be contradictory. They also get frustrated if it doesn’t match their everyday living experiences,” Nowak said.
With the travel guidance, Walensky attempted to spell out the balance she was trying to strike and asked the public for patience and understanding.
“I want to acknowledge today that providing guidance in the midst of a changing pandemic and its changing science is complex,” Walensky said.
“The science shows us that getting fully vaccinated allows you to do more things safely, and it’s important for us to provide that guidance, even in the context of rising cases.At the same time, we must balance the science with the fact that most Americans are not yet fully vaccinated, which is likely contributing to our rising cases,” she said.
Jen Kates, director for global health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, who has known Walensky for decades, said she thinks the CDC director is aware that she can’t escape criticism, especially when so many people have pandemic fatigue.
If the CDC is too strict and refuses to endorse relatively normal behavior, especially after people get vaccinated, it could risk others refusing to get the shot, Kates said.
But if the agency paints too rosy a picture, more people could act like the pandemic is over and risk further spread of the virus.
“It behooves public officials to always be cognizant that their words are being listened to and can be taken out of context or may be hard for people to grasp,” Kates said. “So I think Dr. Walensky is a great communicator, but that doesn’t mean that this is always easy to do and the balance is always straightforward.”
Coronavirus cases are on the rise again in several states, partially a result of variants of the virus becoming more widespread, experts say.
Why it matters:Even though a remarkable 72% of Americans 65 and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine, millions of Americans — particularly younger Americans with underlying conditions — remain vulnerable.
Driving the news: Coronavirus cases are rapidly rising in places including Michigan, New York, New Jersey and other Northeastern states.
In Michigan, the number of hospitalized younger adults has dramatically increased this month. Coronavirus hospitalizations increased by 633% for those aged 30 to 39 and by 800% for those aged 40 to 49, the Detroit Free Press reports.
The variant that originated in the U.K., which is partially driving the new surge, appears to be more transmissible and deadlier.
The big picture: “There are certainly many people who are not vaccinated who are still at severe risk themselves because of underlying medical issues,” said Leana Wen, a visiting professor at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University.
Because of vaccination demographics and who’s at highest risk of exposure, “the proportion of people who are hospitalized and who will die will likely skew toward a younger subset,” she said.
Between the lines: Those still vulnerable to the virus are disproportionately people of color.
That’s because prioritizing people for vaccines based on age disproportionately benefits white Americans, who tend to be older than people of color.
But younger people of color are tend to be at higher risk of severe infections because of underlying conditions.
What they’re saying: “To address areas of outbreak, we should allocate more of the increased vaccine supply coming into the market to places where penetration is low and infection rates high, like metro Detroit,” former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb tweeted.
One year after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the end of that pandemic is within reach.
The big picture:The death and suffering caused by the coronavirus have been much worse than many people expected a year ago — but the vaccines have been much better.
Flashback: “Bottom line, it’s going to get worse,” Anthony Fauci told a congressional panel on March 11, 2020, the day the WHO formally declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic.
A year ago today, the U.S. had confirmed 1,000 coronavirus infections. Now we’re approaching 30 million.
In the earliest days of the pandemic, Americans were terrified by the White House’s projections — informed by well-respected modeling — that 100,000 to 240,000 Americans could die from the virus. That actual number now sits at just under 530,000.
Many models at the time thought the virus would peak last May. It was nowhere close to its height by then. The deadliest month of the pandemic was January.
Yes, but: Last March, even the sunniest optimists didn’t expect the U.S. to have a vaccine by now.
They certainly didn’t anticipate that over 300 million shots would already be in arms worldwide, and they didn’t think the eventual vaccines, whenever they arrived, would be anywhere near as effective as these shots turned out to be.
Where it stands: President Biden has said every American adult who wants a vaccine will be able to get one by the end of May, and the country is on track to meet that target.
The U.S. is administering over 2 million shots per day, on average. Roughly 25% of the adult population has gotten at least one shot.
The federal government has purchased more doses than this country will be able to use: 300 million from Pfizer, 300 million from Moderna and 200 million from Johnson & Johnson.
The Pfizer and Moderna orders alone would be more than enough to fully vaccinate every American adult. (The vaccines aren’t yet authorized for use in children.)
Yes, millions of Americans are still anxiously awaiting their first shot — and navigating signup websites that are often frustrating and awful.
But the supply of available vaccines is expected to surge this month, and the companies say the bulk of those doses should be available by the end of May.
Cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all falling sharply at the same time vaccinations are ramping up.
The bottom line: Measured in death, loss, isolation and financial ruin, one year has felt like an eternity. Measured as the time between the declaration of a pandemic and vaccinating 60 million Americans, one year is an instant.
The virus hasn’t been defeated, and may never fully go away. Getting back to “normal” will be a moving target. Nothing’s over yet. But the end of the worst of it — the long, brutal nightmare of death and suffering — is getting close.
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.