US Coronavirus: A year after the pandemic was declared, US Covid-19 numbers are way too high to relax just yet, CDC director warns

“After a year of this fight, we are tired, we are lonely, we are impatient,” US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a statement Thursday. “There have been too many missed family gatherings, too many lost milestones and opportunities, too many sacrifices.”

“These are grandparents, parents, and children,” Walensky said. “They are siblings, friends, and neighbors. They are our loved ones and our community. We join together to grieve these losses and intensify our efforts so they were not in vain.”

One year into the crisis, Walensky said, “we now clearly see what we should have addressed before — the long-standing inequities that prevent us from achieving optimal health for all. We see the impact of years of neglect of our public health infrastructure. We see the critical need for data that move faster than disease, to prevent rather than react.”

On this day last year, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a congressional hearing that “things are going to get much worse before they get better.”

“But I did not in my mind think that much worse was going to be 525,000 deaths,” he said Thursday on NBC’s “Today” show.

Now, the country is at a pivotal point.

Case numbers, after plateauing at high levels, may be beginning to decline again, Walensky said during a White House briefing on Wednesday. Average hospital admissions and Covid-19 deaths were also down over the past week, she added.

“While these trends are starting to head in the right direction, the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths still remain too high and are somber reminders that we must remain vigilant as we work to scale up our vaccination efforts across this country,” Walensky said.

Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said the US is at a “perfect-storm moment.” The B.1.1.7 variant — first reported in the United Kingdom — has “transmission unlike I’ve seen any at all since this pandemic began” in some areas, particularly in Florida, Texas, and Georgia.

“And, remember, this is coming at us at the very same time we’re opening up America as if there is nothing else happening,” Osterholm said on CNN’s “New Day.”

He added, “I think the dynamics of the virus right now, I’m afraid, are going to beat us at the vaccination game.”

What will help now, while the country works to boost its vaccination numbers, are the precautions that have been touted by officials for months: face masks, social distancing, avoiding crowds, washing hands.
And it’s especially crucial, according to experts, that Americans heed this guidance, even as more governors announce it’s time to begin loosening Covid-19 restrictions and paving the way for a return to normal. Experts have highlighted we’re not there just yet.

“We must continue to use proven prevention measures to slow the spread of Covid-19,” Walensky added. “They are getting us closer to the end of this pandemic.”

People visit the Red Steps in Times Square amid the coronavirus pandemic on March 9, 2021 in New York City

Guidance for fully vaccinated people will evolve with more data

For Americans who have been fully vaccinated, the new guidance released by the CDC earlier this week marks a small first step toward a return to pre-pandemic life, the agency’s director and other colleagues wrote in a JAMA Viewpoint article published Wednesday.

“As vaccine supply increases, and distribution and administration systems expand and improve, more and more people will become fully vaccinated and eager to resume their prepandemic lives,” Walensky and CDC officials Drs. Sarah Mbaeyi and Athalia Christie wrote.

Travel guidance won't come until more people are vaccinated, CDC says

“Giving vaccinated people the ability to safely visit their family and friends is an important step toward improved well-being and a significant benefit of vaccination,” they added.

The guidance will evolve as vaccination numbers grow and more data emerges, the officials said, but while many Americans remain unvaccinated, public health precautions are still very important.

“With high levels of community transmission and the threat of SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern, CDC still recommends a number of prevention measures for all people, regardless of vaccination status,” they wrote.

In its new guidance, the agency did not update its travel recommendations: the CDC still says people should delay travel and stay home.

“What we have seen is that we have surges after people start traveling. We saw it after July 4, we saw it after Labor Day, we saw it after the Christmas holidays,” Walensky said in the briefing. “Currently 90% of people are still unprotected and not yet vaccinated. So we are really looking forward to updating this guidance as we have more protection across the communities and across the population.”

In fact, air travel is already surging, with the Transportation Security Administration screening 955,177 travelers at America’s airports Wednesday — the busiest Wednesday since the winter holidays. Wednesdays are typically slow.

Last weekend, 5.6 million travelers flew in five days, the busiest commercial airlines have been this year.

More than 2 million shots administered daily

More than 62 million Americans have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, CDC data shows. Roughly 32.9 million are fully vaccinated.

And for more than a week, the country’s seven-day average of doses administered has been above two million per day.

Pfizer CEO Dr. Albert Bourla, in an open letter marking the one-year anniversary of the WHO pandemic declaration, celebrated “a sense that liberation is on the horizon,” bolstered in part by “encouraging real-world data about our vaccine coming out of Israel and other countries.”

But Bourla, warned, “we are not out of the woods,” stressing the need to remain “vigilant in the coming months” as the company continues to research antiviral therapies, the impact of boosters on variants, and how its vaccine performs in children and those who are pregnant.

As vaccination numbers climb, more state leaders are loosening the requirements for who can get a shot.

Former Presidents Carter, Clinton, Bush and Obama urge Americans to get vaccinated

In Indiana, teachers and childcare workers can get vaccinated starting Monday, according to Dr. Lindsay Weaver, the chief medical officer with the state’s health department.

The state has also added several high-risk conditions to the list of eligible comorbidities, including early childhood conditions that are carried into adulthood, and Weaver added the state plans incrementally expand vaccine eligibility next to those 40-49 years old.

At least 47 states plus DC are allowing teachers and school staff to receive Covid-19 vaccines. By next Monday, teachers will be eligible in all 50 states.
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In Georgia, officials announced the state will expand its vaccine eligibility starting March 15 to include people 55 and older as well as individuals with disabilities and certain medical conditions.

“Provided supply allows, vaccine eligibility is expected to open to all adults in April,” Gov. Brian Kemp’s office said in a statement.

Other states also announced expanded vaccine eligibility this week, including Alaska, who took it the furthest by making vaccines available to everyone living or working in the state who is at least 16. It’s the first state in the nation to do so.

Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine is the only one available for use by people who are 16 or older, while the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are both restricted to people 18 or older.

CNN’s Lauren Mascarenhas, Elizabeth Stuart, Gisela Crespo and Deidre McPhillips contributed to this report.

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