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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Illinois Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 7 p.m. CT)

Cases: 1185367

Reported Deaths: 22710
CountyCasesDeaths
Cook4739449351
DuPage766591194
Will64954892
Lake59408921
Kane50666716
Winnebago28319438
Madison27949454
St. Clair25391466
McHenry24290265
Champaign18079125
Peoria16880262
Sangamon16121217
McLean14581157
Tazewell13509240
Rock Island13056286
Kankakee12482189
Kendall1103785
LaSalle10786219
Macon9442185
Vermilion8557116
DeKalb8260112
Adams8003114
Williamson6794120
Whiteside5926147
Boone592171
Clinton557189
Coles519091
Grundy511363
Knox5017131
Ogle501473
Jackson460160
Effingham449269
Macoupin434779
Henry432656
Marion4262111
Livingston419876
Franklin414366
Stephenson409275
Monroe406383
Jefferson3976115
Randolph396078
Woodford367260
Morgan358676
Montgomery349268
Lee335143
Logan330753
Bureau330473
Christian330167
Fayette306452
Perry304657
Fulton285044
Iroquois277060
Jersey249346
Douglas244132
McDonough232140
Saline229747
Lawrence229624
Union218536
Shelby213734
Crawford200723
Bond190724
Cass188722
Pike168850
Clark168529
Wayne167148
Hancock167029
Warren166444
Richland163538
White160625
Jo Daviess160522
Ford158245
Washington158223
Carroll157634
Edgar154337
Moultrie149024
Clay142941
Greene137932
Johnson134712
Piatt132214
Wabash130012
Mason128241
Mercer128033
De Witt127822
Massac127133
Cumberland119218
Jasper110917
Menard10358
Marshall83815
Hamilton78815
Schuyler6775
Pulaski6705
Brown6636
Stark54022
Edwards52310
Henderson49814
Calhoun4782
Scott4491
Alexander4478
Gallatin4374
Putnam4153
Hardin34412
Pope2823
Out of IL40
Unassigned02216

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 8 p.m. ET)

Cases: 660942

Reported Deaths: 12556
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion905601638
Lake48352874
Allen35762635
Hamilton32026396
St. Joseph29865511
Elkhart25350414
Vanderburgh21225377
Tippecanoe19977200
Johnson16319356
Porter15938269
Hendricks15801300
Clark11928180
Madison11730316
Vigo11578229
Monroe10312161
Delaware9830179
LaPorte9755196
Howard9047196
Kosciusko8549109
Bartholomew7440147
Warrick7403150
Hancock7394130
Floyd7189169
Wayne6630191
Grant6422157
Morgan6075125
Boone607288
Dubois5895111
Dearborn546866
Cass543399
Henry541793
Marshall5417104
Noble508578
Jackson464366
Shelby460190
Lawrence4179111
Gibson400881
Harrison398763
Clinton395053
Montgomery386283
DeKalb384678
Miami356763
Knox356485
Whitley348936
Huntington342376
Steuben337855
Wabash330876
Putnam329459
Ripley326861
Adams322549
Jasper315443
White297252
Jefferson294473
Daviess285396
Fayette271456
Decatur270488
Greene261280
Posey260531
Wells257674
Scott249950
Clay240844
LaGrange240770
Randolph225576
Spencer217030
Jennings214744
Washington210427
Sullivan203139
Fountain201142
Starke187951
Owen181953
Fulton178237
Jay177628
Carroll176418
Perry173235
Orange171150
Rush164322
Vermillion160242
Franklin159335
Tipton146141
Parke138815
Pike127432
Blackford120627
Pulaski106444
Newton96531
Brown94939
Benton91813
Crawford90313
Martin80014
Warren75513
Switzerland7537
Union67110
Ohio53211
Unassigned0431