Change in new COVID-19 cases in the past week
Percent change of the 7-day average of new cases
on Feb. 23 and March 2, 2021
The U.S. may be on the verge of another surge in coronavirus cases, despite weeks of good news.
The big picture: Nationwide, progress against the virus has stalled. And some states are ditching their most important public safety measures even as their outbreaks are getting worse.
Where it stands: The U.S. averaged just under 65,000 new cases per day over the past week. That’s essentially unchanged from the week before, ending a six-week streak of double-digit improvements.
- Although the U.S. has been moving in the right direction, 65,000 cases per day is not a number that indicates the virus is under control. It’s the same caseload the U.S. was seeing last July, at the height of the summer surge in cases and deaths.
What we’re watching: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday rescinded the state’s mask mandate and declared that businesses will be able to operate at full capacity, saying risk-mitigation measures are no longer necessary because of the progress on vaccines.
- But the risk in Texas is far from over. In fact, its outbreak is growing: New cases in the state rose by 27% over the past week.
- Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves also scrapped all business restrictions, along with the state’s mask mandate, on Tuesday. New cases in Mississippi were up 62% over the past week, the biggest jump of any state.
- The daily average of new daily cases also increased in eight more states, in addition to Mississippi and Texas.
How it works: If Americans let their guard down too soon, we could experience yet another surge — a fourth wave — before the vaccination campaign has had a chance to do its work.
- The vaccine rollout is moving at breakneck speed. The U.S. should have enough doses for every adult who wants one by May, President Biden said this week.
- At the same time, however, more contagious variants of the coronavirus are continuing to gain ground, meaning that people who haven’t gotten their vaccines yet may be spreading and contracting the virus even more easily than before.
What’s next: The bigger a foothold those variants can get, the harder it will be to escape COVID-19 — now or in the future.
- The existing vaccines appear to be less effective against two variants, discovered in South Africa and Brazil, which means the virus could keep circulating even in a world where the vast majority of people are vaccinated.
- And that means it’s increasingly likely that COVID-19 will never fully go away — that outbreaks may flare up here and there for years, requiring vaccine booster shots as well as renewed protective measures.
The bottom line: Variants emerge when viruses spread widely, which is also how people die.
- Whatever “the end of the pandemic” looks like — however good it’s possible for things to get — the way to get there is through ramping up vaccinations and continuing to control the virus through masks and social distancing. Not doing those things will only make the future worse.
- “Getting as many people vaccinated as possible is still the same answer and the same path forward as it was on December 1 or January 1 … but the expected outcome isn’t the same,” Shane Crotty, a virologist at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology in San Diego, told Reuters.
Although the nation reached a grim and long-dreaded milestone on Monday, surpassing 500,000 lives lost to COVID—more than were killed in two World Wars and the Vietnam conflict combined—the news this week was mostly good, as key indicators of the pandemic’s severity continued to rapidly improve.
Over the past two weeks, hospitalizations for COVID were down 30 percent, deaths were down 22 percent, and new cases declined by 32 percent—the lowest levels since late October. This week’s numbers declined somewhat more slowly than last week’s, leading Dr. Rachel Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to caution people against letting their guard down just yet: “Things are tenuous. Now is not the time to relax restrictions.” Of particular concern are new variants of the coronavirus that have emerged in numerous states, including one in New York and another in California, that may be more contagious than the original virus.
The best news of the week was surely a report from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) evaluating the new, single-shot COVID vaccine from Johnson & Johnson (J&J), showing it to be highly effective at preventing severe disease, hospitalization, and death caused by COVID, including variants. On Friday, a panel of outside experts met to assess whether to approve the J&J vaccine for emergency use, which would make it the third in the nation’s arsenal of COVID vaccines. If approved, the vaccine will be rolled out next week, according to the White House, with up to 4M doses available immediately.
The sooner the better: new data show that since vaccinations began in late December, new cases among nursing home residents have fallen more than 80 percent—a hopeful glimpse at the future that lies ahead for the general population once vaccines become widely available.
Scientists at the Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday that the single-shot Covid-19 vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson is effective and prevents hospitalizations from the disease.
Johnson & Johnson also revealed new, encouraging data showing the vaccine may do a better-than-expected job at protecting patients against new variants of the virus that causes disease. At the same time, FDA experts said the company’s study, results of which were originally made public in a Jan. 29 press release, includes insufficient information to draw conclusions on efficacy in people older than 75.
Documents from the FDA scientists, as well as separate documents from Johnson & Johnson, were released ahead of a Friday meeting of an FDA advisory panel in which outside experts will discuss and then vote on the risks and benefits of the new vaccine. The panel, known as the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee, makes recommendations to the FDA; the agency is not required to follow them, but it generally does.
The J&J vaccine is the first vaccine to show efficacy given as a single dose. It also does not need to be kept frozen when being shipped, as the vaccines developed by Moderna and the team of Pfizer and BioNTech do. Both of those advantages could be profound when it comes to vaccinating as many people as possible, a key step in slowing the spread of SARS-CoV-2.
Overall in the study, the vaccine reduced cases of Covid-19 that were rated as moderate to severe by 66.1% when considering cases occurring at least 28 days after vaccination. There were 193 cases that occurred at least 28 days after vaccination in the placebo group and 66 in the vaccine group. As of Feb. 5, there were seven Covid-19 related deaths in the placebo group and none in the vaccine group.
FDA researchers conducted a new analysis of how frequently volunteers in the study were hospitalized for Covid. When researchers counted cases 28 days after vaccination, there were zero hospitalizations in the vaccine arm and 16 in the placebo arm. For the full analysis set starting with the first dose, there were six hospitalizations for those who received the vaccine and 42 for those who did not.
Johnson & Johnson and the National Institutes of Health initially announced interim results of a 44,325 study testing the vaccine’s efficacy on Jan. 29. At the time, they said the 66% efficacy varied by geography. The vaccine was 72% protective in the U.S., compared to 58% in South Africa, where a new variant of SARS-CoV-2 is circulating.
In new documents, Johnson & Johnson said that in South Africa, the vaccine reduced severe or critical Covid-19 by 81.7% starting 28 days after vaccination, but that efficacy against more moderate disease was 64%. But the company said that the vaccine efficacy was not affected by the high prevalence of another variant in Brazil.
Unexpected side effects occurred at the same rate overall among volunteers who received vaccine and placebo — about 0.5%. However, some rare conditions appeared more common with the vaccine. Blood clot-related conditions occurred in 15 volunteers who received the vaccine and 10 who received placebo. Tinnitus, a ringing in the ears, occurred in six volunteers who received the vaccine and none who received placebo. The FDA said it will recommend monitoring for thromboembolic events after an EUA is granted.
Expected side effects that are related to the vaccine’s effect were common. Nearly half of volunteers reported injection site pain, 38.9% reported headache, 38.2% fatigue, and 33% reported muscle aches.
Johnson & Johnson also conducted an analysis in 2,650 volunteers looking at whether those who received the vaccine were less likely to test positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes Covid-19, without having symptoms. There were 50 such cases in the placebo group compared to 18 among those who received the vaccine, a 65.5% reduction.
The United States has purchased 100 million doses of the vaccine, with an option to buy another 200 million doses. The agreement, announced last August, netted J&J over $1 billion in a contract with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority and the Department of Defense.
That said, the company currently has a limited number of doses to contribute to the effort to step up the country’s vaccine rollout. It will be April before J&J begins to have substantial amounts of vaccine to feed into the distribution pipeline, Moncef Slaoui, former co-chair of Operation Warp Speed, said earlier this year.
However, the company and the NIH said the vaccine was 85% effective at preventing severe disease, with no differences seen across the eight countries included in the study.
J&J is also conducting a trial in the United States of a two-dose vaccine, with the doses given eight weeks apart.The results from that 30,000 person trial are not expected until sometime in May.
The FDA documents represent the first close look at the data released Jan. 29, and are the result of a three-week effort by FDA scientists to independently evaluate the data generated in the trial. Friday’s panel will provide a deeper look at what those data actually mean.
More than half of adults in the U.S. (55%) say they’ve already gotten one dose of Covid-19 vaccine or they’re eager to get one as soon as they can, an increase in acceptance from January (47%), a new poll reports. About 1 in 5 people are waiting to see how the vaccine rollout goes, but don’t rule out vaccination. Another 1 in 5 people are more reluctant: 7% would get vaccinated only if required by work, school, or some other activity, and 15% say no to vaccine under any circumstance. The increase in eagerness spans all demographic groups, but Black adults and young adults under age 30 were most likely to say they want to wait and see.
|Three million shots a day|
|The Biden administration has been quite cautious in setting its public vaccination goals.|
|During the transition, officials said they hoped to give shots to one million Americans per day — a level the Trump administration nearly reached in its final days, despite being badly behind its own goals. In President Biden’s first week in office, he raised the target to 1.5 million, although his aides quickly added that it was more of a “hope” than a “goal.” Either way, the country is now giving about 1.7 million shots per day.|
|I have spent some time recently interviewing public-health experts about what the real goal should be, and I came away with a clear message: The Biden administration is not being ambitious enough about vaccinations, at least not in its public statements.|
|An appropriate goal, experts say, is three million shots per day — probably by April. At that pace, half of adults would receive their first shot by April and all adults who wanted a shot could receive one by June, saving thousands of lives and allowing normal life to return by midsummer.|
|Biden struck a somewhat more ambitious tone yesterday, telling CNN that anybody who wanted a vaccine would be able to get one “by the end of July.” But Dr. Anthony Fauci also said that the timeline for when the general population could receive shots was slipping from April to May or June.|
|The shots are on their way|
|The key fact is that the delivery of vaccine doses is on the verge of accelerating rapidly. Since December, Moderna and Pfizer have delivered fewer than one million shots per day to the government.|
|But over the next month and a half, the two companies have promised to deliver at least three million shots per day — and to accelerate the pace to about 3.3 million per day starting in April. Johnson & Johnson is likely to add to that total if, as expected, it receives the go-ahead to start distributing shots in coming weeks.|
|Very soon, the major issue won’t be supply. It will be logistics: Can the Biden administration and state and local governments administer the shots at close to the same rate that they receive them?|
|“I’m not hearing a plan,” Dr. Peter Hotez, a vaccine expert at Baylor College of Medicine, told me. “In the public statements, I don’t hear that sense of urgency.”|
|Bankers’ hours for vaccine clinics|
|The experts I interviewed said they understood why Biden had set only modest public goals so far. Manufacturing vaccines is complex, and falling short of a high-profile goal would sew doubt during a public-health emergency, as Barry Bloom, a Harvard immunologist, told me. If he were president, Bloom added, he would also want to exceed whatever goal was appearing in the media.|
|But setting aside public relations, experts say that the appropriate goal is to administer vaccine shots at roughly the same rate that drug makers deliver them — with a short delay, of a week or two, for logistics. Otherwise, millions of doses will languish in storage while Americans are dying and the country remains partially shut down.|
|“We should be doing more,” Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins, said. “I am kind of surprised by how constrained we’ve been.” Many vaccine clinics operate only during business hours, she noted. And the government has not done much to expand the pool of vaccine workers — say, by training E.M.T. workers.|
|The newly contagious variants of the virus add another reason for urgency. They could cause an explosion of cases in the spring, Hotez said, and lead to mutations that are resistant to the current vaccines. But if the vaccines can crush the spread before then, the mutations may not take hold.|
|“We need to be laser focused on getting as many people vaccinated now as possible,” Dr. Paul Sax, a top infectious-disease official at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, told me.|
|As my colleague Katie Thomas, who covers the vaccines, said: “The future looks bright — if we can do vaccination quickly enough, if people actually want the vaccines and if the variants don’t mess with the plan.”|
|‘Our historic moment of crisis’|
|Nobody doubts that vaccinating three million Americans every day for months on end would be a herculean task.|
|When I asked Biden about his virus plan during a December phone call, he used the term “logistical nightmare” to describe a rapid national vaccination program. “This is going to be one of the hardest and most costly challenges in American history,” he said.|
|Since then, his aides have emphasized the challenges — the possibility of manufacturing problems, the difficulty of working with hundreds of local agencies, the need to distribute vaccines equitably. They also point out that they have nearly doubled the pace of vaccination in their first month in office, accelerated the pace of delivery from drugmakers and have plans to do more, like open mass-vaccination clinics and expand the pool of vaccine workers.|
|Part of me wonders whether the White House knows that three million shots per day is the right goal and simply doesn’t want to say so.|
|When Biden and his advisers talk about the fight against Covid-19, they sometimes compare it to wartime mobilization. And the U.S. has accomplished amazing logistical feats during wartime. A single Michigan auto plant figured out how to manufacture a new B-24 bomber plane every hour during World War II, and a network of West Coast factories built one warship per day — for four years.|
|“This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge,” Biden said during his inaugural address. “We have never, ever, ever failed in America when we have acted together.”|
|Near the end of the speech, he added a question: “Will we rise to the occasion?”|
The CDC selected Walmart and Sam’s Club to help administer COVID-19 vaccines in communities across the United States.
Why it’s important: With 5,000+ pharmacy locations, the company can administer the vaccine in hard-to-reach parts of the country.
In recent weeks, U.S. coronavirus case data — long a closely-watched barometer of the pandemic’s severity — has sent some encouraging signals: The rate of newly recorded infections is plummeting from coast to coast and the worst surge yet is finally relenting. But scientists are split on why, exactly, it is happening.
And every explanation is appended with two significant caveats: The country is still in a bad place, continuing to notch more than 90,000 new cases every day, and recent progress could still be imperiled, either by new fast-spreading virus variants or by relaxed social distancing measures.
The rolling daily average of new infections in the United States hit its all-time high of 248,200 on Jan. 12, according to data gathered and analyzed by The Washington Post. Since then, the number has dropped every day, hitting 91,000 on Sunday, its lowest level since November.
A former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorsed the idea that Americans are now seeing the effect of their good behavior — not of increased vaccinations.
“I don’t think the vaccine is having much of an impact at all on case rates,” Tom Frieden said in an interview Sunday on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS.” “It’s what we’re doing right: staying apart, wearing masks, not traveling, not mixing with others indoors.”
However, Frieden noted, the country’s numbers are still higher than they were during the spring and summer virus waves and “we’re nowhere near out of the woods.”
“We’ve had three surges,” Frieden said. “Whether or not we have a fourth surge is up to us, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.”
The current CDC director, Rochelle Walensky, said in a round of TV interviews Sunday morning that behavior will be crucial to averting yet another spike in infections and that it is far too soon for states to be rescinding mask mandates. Walensky also noted the declining numbers but said cases are still “more than two-and-a-half-fold times what we saw over the summer.”
“It’s encouraging to see these trends coming down, but they’re coming down from an extraordinarily high place,” she said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, publisher of a popular coronavirus model, are among those who attribute declining cases to vaccines and the virus’s seasonality, which scientists have said may allow it to spread faster in colder weather.
In the IHME’s most recent briefing, published Friday, the authors write that cases have “declined sharply,” dropping nearly 50 percent since early January.
“Two [factors] are driving down transmission,” the briefing says. “1) the continued scale-up of vaccination helped by the fraction of adults willing to accept the vaccine reaching 71 percent, and 2) declining seasonality, which will contribute to declining transmission potential from now until August.”
The model predicts 152,000 more covid-19 deaths by June 1, but projects that the vaccine rollout will save 114,000 lives.
In the past week, the country collectively administered 1.62 million vaccine doses per day, according to The Washington Post’s analysis of state and federal data. It was the best week yet for the shots, topping even President Biden’s lofty goal of 1.5 million vaccinations per day.
Nearly 40 million people have received at least their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, about 12 percent of the U.S. population. Experts have said that 70 percent to 90 percent of people need to have immunity, either through vaccination or prior infection, to quash the pandemic. And some leading epidemiologists have agreed with Frieden, saying that not enough people are vaccinated to make such a sizable dent in the case rates.
A fourth, less optimistic explanation has also emerged: More new cases are simply going undetected. On Twitter, Eleanor Murray, a professor of epidemiology at Boston University School of Public Health, said an increased focus on vaccine distribution and administration could be making it harder to get tested.
“I worry that it’s at least partly an artifact of resources being moved from testing to vaccination,” Murray said of the declines.
The Covid Tracking Project, which compiles and publishes data on coronavirus testing, has indeed observed a steady recent decrease in tests, from more than 2 million per day in mid-January to about 1.6 million a month later. The project’s latest update blames this dip on “a combination of reduced demand as well as reduced availability or accessibility of testing.”
“Demand for testing may have dropped because fewer people are sick or have been exposed to infected individuals, but also perhaps because testing isn’t being promoted as heavily,” the authors write.
They note that a backlog of tests over the holidays probably produced an artificial spike of reported tests in early January, but that even when adjusted, it’s still “unequivocally the wrong direction for a country that needs to understand the movements of the virus during a slow vaccine rollout and the spread of multiple new variants.”
Where most experts agree: The mutated variants of the virus pose perhaps the biggest threat to the country’s recovery. One is spreading rapidly and another, known as B.1.351, contains a mutation that may help the virus partly evade natural and vaccine-induced antibodies.
Fewer than 20 cases have been reported in the United States, but a critically ill man in France underscores the variant’s potentially dangerous consequences. The 58-year-old had a mild coronavirus infection in September and the B.1.351 strain reinfected him four months later.
No matter what’s causing the current downturn in new infections, experts have urged Americans to avoid complacency.
“Masks, distancing, ventilation, avoiding gatherings, getting vaccinated when eligible. These are the tools we have to continue the long trip down the tall mountain,” Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, said on Twitter. “The variants may throw us a curve ball, but if we keep driving down transmission we can get to a better place.”