Rates of Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths have sunk significantly in the US since a wave driven by the highly contagious Delta variant peaked in September.
But with cases still relatively high, many children still ineligible to be vaccinated, and colder weather coming, it’s not time to feel comfortable about the country’s position, leading health experts have said.
“We are now heading in the right direction … but with cases still high, we must remain vigilant heading into the colder, drier winter months,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a White House coronavirus briefing Wednesday.
Cases, hospitalizations and deaths jumped after the early summer as the Delta variant became dominant – but all three are declining now.
The US has averaged 69,011 new cases a day over the last week – down about 60% from a peak in a Delta-driven wave (127,531) reached in mid-September, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
The average is also well below the country’s all-time peak, which was more than 251,800 daily in mid-January, amid a winter surge when the vaccine rollout was new and limited.
The current declines and months of vaccinations have sparked speculation about whether the country has already endured the worst of the virus’s prevalence.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, has previously said the Delta-driven wave could be the last major wave of infection, thanks partly to vaccinations, barring any new variant that pierces immunity from vaccination and prior infection.
He has stressed he wasn’t saying that numbers wouldn’t rise again – just that they may not rise as high as they did during the Delta wave if no new dangerous variant emerges. He said the virus could settle into more of a seasonal pattern, including increases in the winter, because colder, drier air could favor the virus’s spread.
Even Gottlieb, a member of Pfizer’s board of directors, said vaccination rates should be higher – perhaps totaling 80-85% in adults – to reliably prevent another Delta-type wave. About 69% of US adults are fully vaccinated now, according to the CDC.
Other experts have been more cautious about whether the US has seen its largest wave.
When explaining Wednesday why K-12 schools shouldn’t defy the CDC’s recommendation for everyone in those buildings to wear masks regardless of vaccination status, a medical school official pointed to what happened when the country at large relaxed its mask attitudes.
“We saw this happen in June over the summer, when we declared the pandemic to be over a bit too early,” Dr. Richina Bicette-McCain, an associate medial director at Baylor College of Medicine, told CNN on Wednesday.
“We decided that those who are vaccinated need not wear masks, which turned into everyone not wearing masks, and then subsequently the spike and the Delta wave followed,” Bicette-McCain said.
As for hospitalizations: The number of Covid-19 patients in US hospitals – 51,541 as of Wednesday – is down 50.4% from a Delta-wave peak reached in September, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
The US averaged 1,369 Covid-19 deaths a day over the past week as of Wednesday, according to Johns Hopkins. That’s generally dropped since the Delta-powered surge hit a peak of was 2,092 on September 22.
Most parents don’t plan to vaccinate young children right away, poll finds
Even with Covid-19 cases rates declining, children should get vaccinated as soon they are able, Dr. Anthony Fauci said Wednesday.
“All you need to do is go to the pediatric hospitals around the country and you see, particularly with the Delta variant, which has a much greater chance of transmitting, that more kids are getting infected,” Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN.
Vaccine eligibility could soon be expanded to ages 5-11. A Food and Drug Administration advisory panel voted last week to recommend emergency use authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine for that age group.
The FDA is expected to decide soon whether to accept that recommendation, and vaccine advisers to the CDC will meet next week to discuss if the agency should recommend the vaccine for those ages.
However, many parents have said they won’t get their younger children vaccinated right away, according to a survey published Thursday by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Among parents of children ages 5-11, only 27% said they will vaccinate their children against the virus as soon as a vaccine becomes available.
That number has stayed pretty much the same since July, even though there has been mounting evidence that the Pfizer vaccine is safe and effective for these younger children. The vaccine is already authorized for children and teens 12 and older.
A further 33% said they would wait and see how the vaccine is working before having their child ages 5-11 vaccinated, according to Kaiser. The group polled more than 1,500 US adults October 14-24.
About 76% of those surveyed said that they were “very” or “somewhat” concerned about long-term side effects, while 71% worried about serious side effects.
Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital, said a vaccine is needed for children ages 5-11, because Covid-19 is a “very bad actor” with even these younger kids.
Hotez said scientists will have to watch closely for any rare safety concerns. A very small number of cases of heart inflammation, like myocarditits, had been reported among older children who received a Covid-19 vaccine. Pfizer said it has not seen any safety concerns in the younger children, but its trials involved just about 2,000 children and it may not have been a large enough group to detect the rare case of vaccine-related inflammation of the heart muscle.
The rate of myocarditis from Covid-19 is “far higher,” Hotez said, and poses a much greater risk.
Poll: 43% say they’ve returned to pre-pandemic activities
With the Delta wave waning, many Americans say they’ve largely returned to their pre-pandemic activities.
About 43% of respondents said they basically returned to normal pre-pandemic behaviors, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation poll published Thursday.
Roughly 6% said they never really changed their activity level, and a further 35% said they returned to “doing some, but not all” of pre-pandemic activities, the foundation said.
Fauci previously has said case rates should fall to around 10,000 daily before restrictions are abandoned. He told CNN Wednesday that it was too soon to give up masks in schools, particularly.
“The dynamics of infection right now, we still are averaging about 70,000 infections a day. That’s a viral dynamic that’s too high to say, ‘OK, we’re good to go; we don’t need to do any more mitigation,’ ” the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told CNN on Wednesday.
Fauci said the country will see a time when it is able to stop wearing masks.
“But I don’t believe now, particularly when you’re in an indoor setting, that we’re ready for that right now,” Fauci said.
CNN Jen Christensen contributed to this report.