Could the U.S. avoid a fourth surge of COVID-19 cases?

fourth surge coronavirus cases montana mask mandate lifted
Photo via Brian Gratwicke/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

With new COVID-19 case numbers coming down below the 100,000 mark in the U.S., some health experts are wondering whether the nation can stave off a fourth surge in coronavirus cases — even with a slower-than-hoped-for vaccine rollout. 

“We’ve had three surges,” Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a Feb. 15 CNN report. “Whether or not we have a fourth surge is up to us, 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.”

Frieden noted that “staying apart, wearing masks, not traveling, not mixing with others indoors” has been integral to case numbers dropped as significantly as they have over the last few weeks. 

As the CNN article noted, “More than 38 million Americans have so far received at least their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine — but it’s not the vaccinations that have driven down COVID-19 numbers across the U.S.” 

The third peak in national COVID-19 cases was higher than the first two, a fact not lost on current CDC director Rochelle Walensky. 

“It’s encouraging to see these trends coming down, but they’re coming down from an extraordinarily high place,” she said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” according to the Washington Post

She noted, during a TV interview tour on Feb. 14, that cases are still “more than two-and-a-half-fold times what we saw over the summer” and that mask mandates should continue to be implemented. 

University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation has a different take on the declining numbers. It reported two contributing factors: “The continued scale-up of vaccination helped by the fraction of adults willing to accept the vaccine reaching 71%, and declining seasonality, which will contribute to declining transmission potential from now until August.”

NPR reported that declining case numbers are leading some public officials to relax restrictions, despite the continued risk of a fourth coronavirus surge. In Montana, for example, Gov. Greg Gianforte lifted a statewide mask mandate on Feb. 12 that had been in effect since July. Gianforte said even though the measure was designed to enforce “personal responsibility,” he would still wear a mask.

“Since we’re not out of the woods yet, I will continue wearing a mask and encourage all Montanans to do the same to protect themselves, their loved ones, and their neighbors,” he stated. 

According to Johns Hopkins epidemiologist Jennifer Nuzzo, however, this is not the time to let up. “This is a really worrisome time to be doing that because we’re so deeply worried about the potential spread of these variants,” she said.

The concern about variants is leading at least one world leader — Iranian President Hassan Rohani — to worry about a fourth surge of coronavirus cases.

Rohani said on state television, according to a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty report, that “alarm bells were ringing for a fourth coronavirus wave” as at least nine southwestern Iranian municipalities were declared high-risk zones after a rise in cases on Feb. 12. 

Health Minister Saeed Namaki added, “Hard days are beginning for us and you must prepare to fight the most uncontrollable mutated virus which is unfortunately infecting the country.” That refers to the B.1.1.7 or British coronavirus variant; Iran has officially recorded its first three deaths from that version of COVID-19 in the past week. 

Sources: CNN, Washington Post, NPR, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

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