After weeks of dramatic decline, COVID-19 cases in the US have hit a plateau—and in some places are ticking up. Officials are sounding the alarm in hopes of averting a fourth surge in the devastating pandemic.
“We at CDC consider this a very concerning shift in the trajectory,” Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a press briefing last week. Though cases are down from their astronomical peak in early-to-mid January, the overall numbers are still quite high, matching averages seen in late October, at the base of the holiday surge.
“Things are tenuous,” she noted. “Now is not the time to relax restrictions.”
The reversing trend may in part be due to the B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant, first identified in the UK and thought to be about 40 percent to 50 percent more infectious than earlier SARS-CoV-2 viruses. As expected, it has continued spreading and now accounts for an estimated 10 percent of cases nationwide, up from an estimated 1-to-4 percent a few weeks ago. CDC researchers previously estimated that B.1.1.7 would become the predominant variant in the country during the month of March. At the same time, researchers are tracking other, potentially concerning variants in California and New York.
“We may now be seeing the beginning effects of these variants in the most recent data,” Walensky added.
According to the latest numbers, US cases have plunged from a January 11 seven-day average of nearly 250,000 new cases a day. That average followed the record smashing daily high of over 315,000 cases on January 8, according to CDC data. Now, the seven-day average is hovering around 67,000, with over 73,000 new daily cases logged at the end of last week, before the weekend slump. But that 67,000 average is up from earlier last week, when it was around 63,000 to 65,000.
“In fact, cases have been increasing for the past three days compared to the prior week,” Walensky said on Friday.
It’s the first upticks seen since the precipitous fall from mid-January. Cases Saturday remained high, hanging around 70,000. Experts will be carefully watching how the trend line fluctuates this week. Even if cases merely plateau rather than continue to rise, they’re still extremely high.
“If we plateau at 70,000, we are at that very precarious position that we were right before the fall surge, where anything that could perturb that could give us another surge,” infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci said. “ You know, we don’t want to be people always looking at the dark side of things, but you want to be realistic.”
Fauci and Walensky both stressed the need for continued vigilance and health precautions with the continued risk. Though vaccination efforts continue to ramp up—and a third vaccine was authorized for use over the weekend—only about 15 percent of the country has received at least one dose of vaccine so far. Vaccinations will not roll out fast enough to avert a possible fourth surge.
And while a potential new surge may end up being driven by current concerning variants, another surge would give the virus even more opportunities to mutate and become more dangerous.
“Viruses will not mutate if you don’t give them the opportunity to spread and replicate,” Fauci noted. “So public health measures are paramount.”