The beginning of winter saw the worst coronavirus surge in the U.S. so far, with cases, hospitalizations, and deaths all rising to horrific levels and hospital systems around the country overwhelmed. The number peaked in early to mid-January, when cases regularly surged well past the 200,000 daily mark, hospitalizations eclipsed 130,000 for the first time, and deaths often surpassed a hard-to-fathom 4,000-plus per day.
Deaths, a lagging indicator of the overall situation, are still at the abominably high levels they were weeks ago. But, in a hopeful sign, both hospitalizations and cases are falling — and fast.
Cases are still much higher than they were a few months ago. But, according to the COVID Tracking Project, the seven-day average is the lowest since the end of November, and has fallen 30 percent since the peak in mid-January. This dip constitutes the sharpest fall throughout the pandemic. And there is reason to believe that, unlike after previous drops, the numbers may not climb back up again.
The pace of vaccinations in the U.S. has picked up after a shambolic start, with more than 1 million Americans vaccinated over the past several days. According to Bloomberg’s vaccination tracker, 25.6 million doses have been administered as of Thursday morning (the vast majority of them the first shot in the two-shot cycle), with an average of 1.2 million inoculations taking place every day over the past week. The Biden administration has raised its goal to 1.5 million vaccinations per day, and if Johnson and Johnson’s one-shot vaccine shows promising results — the company is expected to release data in the coming days — the picture could become even brighter.
About 25 million people have contracted COVID, according to official statistics — but the actual number is thought to be multiples higher, perhaps more than 100 million. With tens of millions of vaccinations thrown in, the virus may be finding it more difficult to spread so easily among the U.S. population. And with more and more elderly Americans being vaccinated, the cohort most vulnerable to hospitalization and death will increasingly be protected from the virus’s worst effects.
The X factor: new coronavirus variants that are more contagious than the original. The coronavirus strain that recently brought the British health-care system to its knees has already been found in many U.S. states, and epidemiologists have warned that, given its contagion level, it could become the dominant strain in America by March. So the “infections versus injections” race is on, with reason for optimism about the long-term picture — but with even more ample reason for caution over the next few weeks.