'We are backsliding': The pandemic momentum has been squandered

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WASHINGTON — Top public health officials are warning about an alarming rise in coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths, figures that represent a bitter setback in the fight to end the pandemic.

“Across the board, we are seeing increases in cases and hospitalizations in all age groups,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said during a Thursday briefing by the White House pandemic response team. She noted that as of Monday, a full 83 percent of all counties in the U.S. were experiencing “substantial or high” transmission of the coronavirus, a trend driven almost entirely by the virus’s Delta variant.

The discouraging news is a refutation to earlier, rosier predictions. “From the beginning, we have known that this virus is unpredictable,” White House pandemic response coordinator Jeff Zients said on Thursday, though he argued that the administration’s “relentless” vaccination push was showing fresh signs of progress.

The coronavirus has shown a frustrating resilience. New variants of the pathogen could extend the pandemic into 2022.

It was supposed to be over by now.

“We’ll Have Herd Immunity by April,” went the headline of a Wall Street Journal op-ed published on Feb. 18, 2021. Vaccines were just becoming widely available, and the winter surge appeared to be subsiding. “There is reason to think the country is racing toward an extremely low level of infection,” predicted the article’s author, Dr. Marty Makary, a cancer surgeon at Johns Hopkins.

Like most other predictions about the pandemic, this one turned out to be incorrect. It is now August, and while things are not nearly as bleak as they were throughout most of 2020, the more transmissible Delta variant has prolonged the pandemic, scuttling visions of a nationwide summer reopening.

“We are backsliding,” says Dr. Leana Wen, the former health commissioner of Baltimore, “when we could be putting the pandemic behind us through vaccination.”

There are, to be sure, reasons for optimism, including when it comes to inoculation rates that had been stagnant for weeks. On Thursday, Zients revealed that 864,000 people had been vaccinated on Wednesday, the highest number since July 3. Notably, he said that vaccinations had increased in Georgia, Oklahoma and Tennessee, where infections have recently soared.

Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), attends a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., U.S., July 20, 2021. (Stefani Reynolds/Pool via Reuters)
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky at a Senate hearing in Washington, D.C., on July 20. (Stefani Reynolds/Pool/Reuters)

“Clearly, Americans are seeing the impact of being unvaccinated and unprotected,” Zients said at the press briefing. The vaccines continue to be exceptionally effective in protecting against severe disease and death. On the rare occasions when the coronavirus does break through the protections the vaccines offer, the resulting bout of COVID-19 tends to be mild.

Overall, only 49.9 percent of all Americans are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. That figure doesn’t account for those who have natural immunity from having fought off COVID-19, developing antibodies in the process. Nor is the vaccine approved yet for children under 12, though they tend to become ill much more rarely than do adults.

That means the reprieve that began in spring is just about over. During the Thursday briefing, Walensky said that the seven-day average of cases had risen sharply to 89,463 new cases per day, an increase of 43.3 percent over the previous reporting period. Only two months ago, the nation finally saw a day with fewer than 10,000 new cases — and a weekly average of fewer than 15,000 new cases.

There couldn’t be a clearer sign that things were improving. But what should have been a turning point turned out to be a brief spell of calm. Soon after that dip, cases started rising again, just as some epidemiologists predicted they would if more people did not become vaccinated and communities cast off all restrictions.

Even more worrying than rising case rates are a 41.1 percent increase in the seven-day average of new hospitalizations last week, as compared to the week ending on June 26, and a 39.3 percent rise in deaths during roughly the same period. There is now an average of 381 coronavirus deaths per day. Deaths fell below 300 per day in June, but, like infection rates, have risen since then.

Rachel Steury receives a COVID vaccine on August 05, 2021 at a clinic in Springfield, Missouri. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Rachel Steury receives a COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday at a clinic in Springfield, Mo. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

For much of the summer, the nation appeared to be in a post-pandemic mindset, even as Delta was already spreading. “President Biden absolutely declared a victory too soon,” Wen recently told Yahoo News, referring to his July 4 address on “our independence from a deadly virus.”

Those remarks came after a spring that saw more than 100 million Americans vaccinated. As vaccination rates continued to climb, the public and many elected leaders appeared to exhale and relax.

That looks to have been a mistake.

In mid-May, the CDC announced that vaccinated people no longer needed to wear masks. Right around that time, the most cautious regions of the United States announced that they would be lifting the last restrictions on activities like indoor dining and concerts.

The pandemic appeared to be over. “It is time to resume normal life,” wrote social critic Yascha Mounk.

Already, though, a new variant of the coronavirus was on its way. Delta had first been identified in India and had spent much of the spring proliferating through the United Kingdom, where it delayed reopening plans.

Top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci responds to accusations by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., as he testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)
Dr. Anthony Fauci testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Capitol Hill on July 20. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

“We cannot let that happen in the United States,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s top science adviser, said on June 8, referring to the rapid spread of Delta in the U.K.

Early studies indicated that the Delta variant had features that made it more transmissible than other variants of the coronavirus. Still, vaccines were highly effective — and continue to be. Public health officials have said over and over that vaccinations are the only effective endgame against the virus.

Of course, for vaccines to be effective, they have to be injected into arms. Despite a bevy of incentives from federal, state and local officials, Americans lost interest in the vaccination drive with the arrival of warmer weather. A flood of misinformation about the vaccines also appears to have hurt the effort. Even offers of free booze and guns failed to persuade the recalcitrant.

The last time more than a million people were vaccinated on a single day was June 11, according to the CDC. By then, vaccination rates had been in a steady decline since early April, when more than 3 million people were being vaccinated daily. Doses were coveted, sending some people hunting for shots.

Healthcare workers treat a patient inside a negative pressure room in the Covid-19 intensive care unit (ICU) at Freeman Hospital West in Joplin, Missouri, U.S., on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021. (Angus Mordant/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Health care workers treat a COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit at Freeman Hospital West in Joplin, Mo., on Tuesday. (Angus Mordant/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Now that the Delta variant has made landfall, people are eager to get vaccinated again. But it takes as long as two weeks for a fully immunized person to develop antibodies against the coronavirus, and people now receiving their first shot of the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer or Moderna will need to wait several weeks before receiving a second shot, without which there is little protection against Delta.

Nothing can be done about these waiting periods, meaning that the coronavirus will continue to spread for much of August, even as governors like Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas have resisted mask mandates that would offer an added layer of protection.

Earlier this week — about a month later than hoped — the nation reached President Biden’s goal of immunizing 70 percent of American adults. Yet experts now believe that about 80 percent of the population has to be vaccinated (or retain natural immunity from a previous COVID-19 illness) to achieve herd immunity.

The picture today is notably more bleak than it was a month ago, when the end of the pandemic seemed to be near. “We’re closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus,” Biden said during a White House event on July 4.

Now, suddenly, independence feels more distant. There are fears of new lockdowns, of schools reverting to Zoom, of weddings and vacations canceled. There are debates over eviction moratoriums and travel restrictions. Masks are back. So are worries about just how long this pandemic will last. For at least a little while longer, it seems.




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