Here's why some Covid-19 numbers keep improving. (Hint: It's not widespread vaccinations)

Kudos to everyone who has been doubling down on mask wearing and social distancing. Health experts say your efforts are paying off.But with only 4% of...

Posted: Feb 15, 2021 11:50 AM
Updated: Feb 16, 2021 3:15 AM

Kudos to everyone who has been doubling down on mask wearing and social distancing. Health experts say your efforts are paying off.

But with only 4% of the US population fully vaccinated, experts say Americans must continue safety precautions at full force to prevent highly contagious variants from undoing all the progress.

Researchers reported Sunday that they identified seven troubling new coronavirus variants circulating in the US, according to Dr. Wilbur Chen, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Maryland Medical School.

'We certainly want to preserve the full efficacy of these vaccines by preventing more variant viruses, but again, these vaccines are effective and they continue to be useful,' Chen, who is a member of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, said.

The US shattered its records for daily new infections, hospitalizations and deaths in early January after widespread holiday gatherings and travel.

Since then, Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations have plummeted. Doctors say there are several reasons why:

'One, we came off of really high numbers from the holidays,' said Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health.

'Second, there is pretty good evidence that people are doing a better job of social distancing and mask wearing,' he said.

'Third, I think in a lot of communities, we've had so much infection that you have some level of population immunity. Not herd immunity, but enough population immunity that it is causing the virus to slow down.'

The US is still months away from having most Americans vaccinated. About 14 million Americans have been fully vaccinated with both doses of their Covid-19 vaccines. That's only about 4% of the US population. And it takes weeks for vaccines to fully kick in.

But more than 11% of Americans have received at least one dose of a vaccine. And that might contribute slightly to the decreasing Covid-19 hospitalizations, said Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

'The doses that are out there ... are mostly first doses, and that will provide incomplete immunity, short-lived immunity,' Offit said. 'You need that second dose.'

In the meantime, increased masking -- and wider acceptance of wearing masks -- has driven Covid-19 numbers down, said Dr. Jonathan Reiner, professor of medicine and surgery at George Washington University.

'This is a consequence, probably, of a much better message uniformly distributed about masking in the United States,' he told CNN on Monday. 'More people really than ever before in this pandemic are wearing masks.'

Where the US stands now

The seven-day average of daily new cases is now 90,416 -- down from a peak of about 250,000 in early January, according to Johns Hopkins University.

As of Sunday, 67,023 people were hospitalized with Covid-19 -- about half the record-high of 132,447 set on January 6, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

But Covid-19 deaths are still painfully high. More than 42,500 Americans have died from Covid-19 in just the past two weeks. That's an average of more than 3,000 lives lost every day.

And disturbing variants keep spreading, threatening another surge.

'We've had three surges. Whether or not we have a fourth surge is up to us,' said former CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden.

'And the stakes couldn't be higher -- not only in the number of people who could die in the fourth surge, but also in the risk that even more dangerous variants will emerge if there's more uncontrolled spread.'

That's why health experts say state leaders shouldn't ease restrictions such as mask mandates now.

'It's encouraging to see these trends coming down, but they're coming down from an extraordinarily high place,' CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told NBC on Sunday.

'If we want to get our children back to school, and I believe we all do, it all depends on how much community spread is out there,' she said.

'We need to all take responsibility to decrease that community spread, including mask wearing, so that we can get our kids and our society back.'

Variants in the US include homegrown strains

More than 1,100 cases of the highly contagious B.1.1.7 variant, first spotted in the UK, have been reported in 39 US states, according to the CDC. About a third of the cases were reported in Florida.

The troubling B.1.351 strain, first detected in South Africa, has been found in 17 US cases. That strain is concerning because some vaccines may be somewhat less effective against it.

Now, researchers have identified a batch of worrisome mutations in US samples that also appear to make the virus more transmissible.

Those mutations all affect the same stretch of the spike protein -- the knob-like extension of the virus that's used to dock onto the cells it infects, researchers wrote in a pre-print report that has not yet been peer reviewed.

But so far, these mutations appear to be 'relatively rare,' one of the researchers said.

There's also an important lesson from the recent global drop in new Covid-19 cases.

In the past five weeks, 'weekly reported cases (have) fallen by almost half,' said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization.

'This shows that simple public health measures work -- even in the presence of variants,' he said.

'What matters now is how we respond to this trend. The fire is not out, but we have reduced its size.'

States still struggle with vaccine supply

Public health experts say the US is now in a race to vaccinate as many Americans as possible before coronavirus strains keep spreading and mutating further.

But supply shortages continue.

In Washington state, officials said appointments for the first dose will be 'extremely limited' this week as the state will focus on administering second doses.

'We are monitoring the distribution of doses closely and making adjustments as needed,' Secretary of Health Umair A. Shah said.

'While the limited availability of first doses will be challenging this coming week, focusing on second doses will help pave the way for an improved and more sustainable allocation of vaccines in future weeks.'

In San Francisco, officials said high-volume vaccination site will pause for a week and will reopen 'once supply is sufficient to resume operations.'

A second high-volume site expects to resume vaccinations Friday -- but only for second doses. A third high-volume vaccine site is set to launch this week, but 'with available appointments far below full capacity,' officials said in a news release Sunday.

'The City has the capacity to administer more than 10,000 vaccines per day but lack the vaccine supply,' they added.

Several of Los Angeles' Covid-19 vaccination sites were forced to temporarily close because of a lack of vaccine doses.

Washington state and California are far from alone in their struggles. Officials have said supply will likely remain a challenge for a while, and experts say vaccines will likely not be widely available to the American public until late spring or summer.

'By the end of the summer, we will have enough vaccine in order to vaccinate the entire US population that is eligible,' Walensky, the CDC director, told Fox News on Sunday.

Debates over teacher vaccinations and school reopenings

About 89% of children in the US live in a county considered a red zone with high levels of Covid-19 transmission under new school opening guidelines shared by the CDC on Friday, according to a CNN analysis of federal data.

Red, or 'high transmission,' communities are defined by the CDC as counties where there were at least 100 new Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people or a test positivity rate of at least 10% during the past seven days.

Emergency physician Dr. Leana Wen said teacher vaccinations are crucial for reopening schools -- a stance that differs from the CDC's school reopening guidance released last week.

The agency's guidelines did not list vaccination as a 'key' strategy for opening schools, focusing instead on measures like masks and physical distancing, among others. Vaccinations for staff and teachers are 'an additional layer of protection,' Walensky has said.

If schools in 'high transmission' communities cannot 'strictly implement all mitigation strategies,' the CDC says all extracurricular activities should be virtual. Plus middle and high schools should stick with virtual learning in these red zones, and elementary schools should maximize physical distance through hybrid learning or reduced attendance.

On Sunday, Walensky told CNN that while vaccination for teachers is not a prerequisite for reopening schools, current CDC guidance does say those who are at higher risk should have virtual options.

'I'm a strong advocate of teachers receiving their vaccinations,' Walensky said. 'But we don't believe it's a prerequisite for schools to reopen.'

Wen, however, called teacher vaccinations 'essential.'

'If we want students to be in school for in-person learning, the least that we can do is to protect the health and well-being of our teachers,' Wen said.

She said teacher vaccinations are especially important because 'in so many parts of the country, teachers are already being made to go back to school in poorly-ventilated, cramped areas, with many students who may not always be masking and practicing physical distancing.'

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Cases: 1367126

Reported Deaths: 24801
CountyCasesDeaths
Cook54734510147
DuPage908351288
Will75828993
Lake67459991
Kane58579778
Winnebago33393477
Madison30589520
McHenry28705288
St. Clair27915514
Peoria23202317
Champaign20710145
Sangamon18831234
McLean18236181
Tazewell16999291
Rock Island15041318
Kankakee14232210
Kendall1310594
LaSalle12589244
Macon10784200
DeKalb9912119
Vermilion9702132
Adams8476123
Williamson7446130
Whiteside7166172
Boone672074
Ogle612081
Grundy590176
Clinton576590
Coles569196
Knox5573150
Jackson503364
Henry501167
Livingston483385
Stephenson477183
Woodford476277
Effingham472972
Macoupin471583
Marion4472115
Franklin446375
Monroe435793
Jefferson4304120
Lee417453
Randolph413484
Fulton395557
Morgan390282
Logan389159
Montgomery373474
Bureau372782
Christian368673
Perry317960
Fayette317855
Iroquois302966
McDonough286747
Jersey269350
Douglas259035
Saline256654
Lawrence240625
Shelby229937
Union226240
Crawford212326
Bond205524
Cass199525
Jo Daviess181924
Clark180633
Warren180246
Pike179352
Ford179147
Wayne178053
Hancock176231
Carroll175636
Richland175240
Edgar170840
White169826
Washington164425
Moultrie161128
De Witt151725
Mason151645
Piatt150014
Clay148143
Mercer147533
Johnson144615
Greene144033
Massac134640
Wabash134612
Cumberland129019
Menard123712
Jasper115118
Marshall107418
Hamilton83615
Schuyler7607
Brown7106
Pulaski6867
Stark63824
Edwards56912
Henderson52414
Calhoun5182
Putnam4833
Scott4791
Alexander46811
Gallatin4604
Hardin38612
Pope3224
Out of IL20
Unassigned02356

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

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Cases: 735999

Reported Deaths: 13486
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion1007151752
Lake54249977
Allen40946680
St. Joseph36335553
Hamilton35829408
Elkhart28844443
Tippecanoe22475219
Vanderburgh22367397
Porter18946311
Johnson18067381
Hendricks17317315
Clark13036192
Madison12762339
Vigo12501249
LaPorte12086215
Monroe11957172
Delaware10755187
Howard10001218
Kosciusko9466117
Hancock8373142
Bartholomew8098156
Warrick7799155
Floyd7690178
Grant7098174
Wayne7072199
Boone6745101
Morgan6611140
Dubois6166117
Marshall6111112
Cass5876105
Dearborn583178
Henry5785105
Noble565984
Jackson503773
Shelby494396
Lawrence4602120
Gibson437192
Harrison436672
DeKalb430585
Clinton428453
Montgomery425889
Whitley398739
Huntington394480
Steuben391057
Miami383968
Knox372890
Jasper372649
Putnam363760
Wabash355380
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Ripley340770
Jefferson331881
White317754
Daviess298399
Wells292081
Decatur285992
Fayette282162
Greene280585
Posey272034
LaGrange268970
Scott267554
Clay261347
Washington242132
Randolph242081
Spencer232931
Jennings230949
Starke219354
Fountain213946
Sullivan212242
Owen203356
Jay197830
Fulton196040
Carroll190420
Orange184754
Perry184637
Rush174025
Vermillion170044
Franklin168535
Tipton163445
Parke146716
Pike135634
Blackford135132
Pulaski117445
Newton108934
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Crawford101415
Benton99014
Martin89515
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Switzerland7948
Union71410
Ohio57111
Unassigned0417