Frightening coronavirus variants have found footing in the U.S. Experts caution that the worst may still be yet to come. Super Bowl watch parties could be the next superspreader event. This is, without question, not the time to let one’s guard down. And yet, the COVID-19 picture in America at this moment in time is vastly improved from what it was just a few weeks ago.
COVID cases around the country continue to plummet daily, showing no sustained sign of ticking back up, despite the fact that highly contagious COVID variants, which have caused havoc in Brazil, South Africa, and the U.K. have all been detected in America.
According to the ever-reliable COVID-tracking project, daily cases stood at 117,000 on Wednesday, and hospitalizations are at 91,440. While both these numbers are vastly higher than they were at the nadir of the pandemic in America (a very high nadir), the drop in the last few weeks is eye-catching.
Less than a month ago, daily cases regularly exceeded the 200,000-per-day threshold, often breaching 250,000. Now, cases are back to around where they were before Thanksgiving. According to the New York Times’ case tracker, they’re down 30 percent in the last two weeks, with hospitalizations, which peaked around 130,000, down 23 percent in that period. Deaths, a lagging indicator, remain horrifyingly high, at well over 3,000 on most weekdays. But that number too, appears to be falling.
“We now appear to be in a consistent downward trajectory,” new CDC head Rochelle Walensky said on Wednesday, noting that cases had dropped 13.4 percent just from January 26 to February 1.
Axios reports that cases are declining in 42 states and about steady in eight.
Why cases are dropping so uniformly around the country is not entirely clear, but vaccinations are probably not the primary reason. There is no clear weather-related explanation, though seasonality effects may be at play despite the frigid temperatures in much of the country. The Biden administration has made encouraging moves like mandating mask usage on almost all public transportation, such measures are unlikely to make a marked dent in infection numbers, with more important policies — like whether restaurants are open for business as usual — continuing to vary widely by state. It’s also possible that some semblance of herd immunity is kicking in, since far more Americans are thought to have contracted COVID over the last year than the confirmed total of 26.6 million. In late January, Dr. Anthony Fauci said attributed the drop in cases to an expected plateau after the holiday season, and said that vaccinations were not yet a major factor in the numbers.
But the vaccine rollout looks increasingly encouraging. About 8 percent of the country has now received at least one dose of either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines, with about 1.3 million people being newly inoculated every day, according to Bloomberg — and more excellent news on the efficacy of those doses and other companies’ vaccines emerging every day. The Biden administration has set a near-term target of 1.5 million shots per day. The longer cases continue their downward march, the more time America buys to protect itself from virus mutations that have not yet swept the country — but which could do so at any moment.