According to Dr. Dochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that a recent hike of Covid-19 cases shows that a loosening of restrictions and pandemic measures can spell disaster for the country in the spring. According to Walensky, the next few weeks will prove pivotal for how bad the pandemic is going to get by the summer.
With vaccination efforts going on at full steam, the US could find itself in a really good place by summer if people don’t give up safety measures for a while longer, said Dr. Walensky. On the other hand, she expressed worries that the combination of several highly contagious strains and continuous advocacy against the use of face masks can undo all the work that’s been done and further delay the opportunity for a safe reopening of the economy.
“I think the next two or three months could go in one of two directions,” Walensky told NPR host Ari Shapiro. “If things open up, if we’re not really cautious, we could end up with a post-spring break surge the way we saw a post-Christmas surge. We could see much more disease. We could see much more death.”
“In an alternative vision,” Walensky continued, “I see we really hunker down for a couple of more months, we get so many people vaccinated and we get to a really great place by summer.”
Dr. Walensky may be right to worry given that just one day before her interview the governors of both Texas and Mississippi announced that they’ll end mask mandates and they’ll allow business in their states to reopen at full capacity. Dr. Walensky isn’t the only one disappointed by that – President Biden referred to that decision as “Neandertal thinking.”
How do some states justify reopening and loosening of restrictions during this crucial period?
Most advocates of the ending of mask mandates and restrictions use selective statistics to portray the pandemic as “dying down.” For example, Texas reported a drop of new cases by about 9%. But that’s only the case if you average the numbers from two weeks ago. If you only go back one week, new cases are actually up by 20%. In Mississippi, new cases are similarly down from two weeks ago but up 62% over last week’s numbers.
“The CDC squarely recommends routine masking, routine social distancing right now, right as we’re at this nexus, this critical time, this tenuous point. So it squarely does not fit within the guidance that we are recommending,” said Walensky.
“I will say, though, that the reason that I mask is not because my governor tells me so,” she continued. “The reason I mask is because I know it protects myself, it protects my loved ones, it protects my neighbors and my community, so I think everybody is empowered to do the right thing and to put the mask on.”
The roll backs in these two states are not the only ones in the US either, they are just two of the most extreme examples – Massachusetts and South Caroline are employing similar roll backs against the CDC’s recommendations.
“We are all exhausted,” Walensky acknowledged, but urged people that now is not the time to loosen up. “There is a vision, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Now is not the time to stop wearing a mask,” she said, referring to the continuing vaccination efforts.
A fluid situation
Dr. Walensky took the post of CDC director this January and while it was a messy situation, she recalls being optimistic at first. By the end of January new infections around the country had fallen down by as much as 70% and hospitalizations had also dropped by 60% compared to the mid-January peak after the holidays.
Yet, Dr. Walensky is now warning of “troubling signs” if states continue loosening up restrictions prematurely. In addition to new cases and hospitalizations increasing, so have daily deaths which are still over 2,000 per day and over 530,000 overall.
Many officials attribute the recent spikes in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths to the spread of new and more contagious strains of the virus such as the British B.1.1.7 Covid-19.
“What worries me the most is that we’re really stabilizing now, teetering at around 60,000 to 70,000 cases a day, and that is too many cases to try and put an end to this pandemic,” Walensky said.
“It also worries me because as we’re sort of stabilizing with these very high levels of virus, we have this hyper-transmissible strain, the B.1.1.7 strain, that really threatens the progress that we’ve been making to date,” she added. “And so, with these levels of virus circulating and this hyper-transmissible strain, I’m just worried about what the future looks like.”
On whether she’s still optimistic about the US’ prospects of getting out of the crisis soon, Walensky said that it’s too early to tell if the country has hit the plateau or is yet to hit another upswing in cases.
However, Walensky did express optimism about Biden’s forecast on the vaccination efforts. According to the president, there would be enough vaccines for every American adult by the end of May. This was further made probable by the Food and Drug Administration’s decision to authorize the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for widespread use.
“I think the supply is going to increase more and more in the weeks ahead. I think the end of March looks better, end of April looks even better than that,” Walensky said. “So I think really we’re talking in the four to eight week range where we’re really going to start seeing a real step-up of supply.”
Whether the vaccine distribution network can handle this endeavor in time is yet to be seen.