While the number of Covid-19 hospitalizations has declined since early January, a more transmissible variant of the coronavirus was detected for the first time in the United States on Thursday, prompting public health experts to warn that even with vaccination efforts underway, it is more important than ever for the country's elected officials and residents to treat the pandemic as an ongoing threat.
"Every one of us must recommit to the fight by recognizing that we are all on the front lines now."
—Brannon Traxler, SCDHEC
"This is the calm before the real storm," said Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. "I think the darkest days of the pandemic are just ahead of us."
The Associated Press reported that "the mutated version of the virus, first identified in South Africa, was found in two cases in South Carolina. Public health officials said it's almost certain that there are more infections that have not been identified yet. They are also concerned that this version spreads more easily and that vaccines could be less effective against it."
Dr. Krutika Kuppalli, an infectious diseases physician at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, called the discovery "frightening" because both of the infected adults live in different parts of the state and neither has traveled recently, meaning it is likely there are additional undetected cases within the state. "It's probably more widespread," Kuppalli added.
With the arrival of a new strain in the U.S., "the fight against this deadly virus is far from over," said Dr. Brannon Traxler, interim public health director at the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (SCDHEC). "While more Covid-19 vaccines are on the way, supplies are still limited. Every one of us must recommit to the fight by recognizing that we are all on the front lines now."
As the AP noted: "Viruses constantly mutate, and coronavirus variants are circulating around the globe, but scientists are primarily concerned with the emergence of three that researchers believe may spread more easily. Other variants first reported in the United Kingdom and Brazil were previously confirmed in the U.S."
"Scientists last week reported preliminary signs that some of the recent mutations may modestly curb the effectiveness of two vaccines, although they stressed that the shots still protect against the disease," the news outlet reported. "There are also signs that some of the new mutations may undermine tests for the virus and reduce the effectiveness of certain treatments."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) expects the coronavirus variant first identified in the U.K.—present in at least 28 states and 70 countries—to become dominant in the U.S. at some point in March, The Washington Post reported earlier this month.
According to the AP:
As the variants bring a potential for greater infection risks in the U.S., pandemic-weary lawmakers in several states are pushing back against mask mandates, business closures, and other protective restrictions ordered by governors.
States including Arizona, Michigan, Ohio, Maryland, Kentucky, and Indiana are weighing proposals to limit their governors' abilities to impose emergency restrictions. The Wisconsin Legislature was expected to vote on repealing the governor's mask mandate. Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering a constitutional amendment to strip the governor of many of his emergency powers...
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Meanwhile, Nebraska health officials said the state could be days away from lifting restrictions on indoor gatherings, citing a low percentage of Covid-19 hospitalizations. Other states seeing declining infections are also loosening limitations on restaurants and other businesses, though experts have warned the public to stay vigilant about masks and social distancing or risk further surges.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top expert on infectious diseases, told MSNBC on Thursday morning that "I think it potentially could get worse."
According to data from Johns Hopkins University, well over 25 million Americans have tested positive for the coronavirus, and the country's Covid-19 death toll surpassed 432,000 on Thursday, by far the highest in the world.
Meanwhile, the Covid Tracking Project shows that as of Wednesday, the U.S. had a seven-day average of roughly 160,000 cases and more than 3,250 deaths per day.
As The Hill reported:
The pace of infections has followed a steady and disturbing pattern in the year since the virus was first identified in the United States: Cases rise alarmingly, first in core epicenters and then across the nation, followed by a plateau and a slight decline, before the cycle begins again.
What worries epidemiologists and health experts is that the declines have so far stalled at successively higher baselines, leading to larger spikes when infections begin accelerating anew.
The current decline in case counts has an average of 162,000 people testing positive in the United States over the past week—the same level as were testing positive in late November, and nearly triple the number who were testing positive during the worst of the summer surge.
"The pattern is likely to accelerate once again," The Hill noted, as the more transmissible strains start spreading more rapidly.
Former CDC Director Rich Besser said that "we need an urgency around vaccinating people quickly." But his advice extended beyond increasing the pace of inoculation.
"Unless we truly, as a nation, come together and follow public health guidance to flatten the curve," Besser warned, "as that strain becomes more commonplace, we will see the numbers go up dramatically, we will see hospitalizations go up, and we will see deaths go up."