Between mass vaccination rollouts, plateauing case numbers, and the arrival of warmer spring weather, many Americans have begun to lower their guards regarding the coronavirus pandemic. Experts warn that doing so could cause another major COVID-19 surge in 2021, just as the nation nears the light at the end of the tunnel.
COVID-19 case numbers have indeed leveled off, but daily new cases in the United States still averaged 60,000 during the first week of March. As Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Face the Nation on Feb. 28, those numbers are still “really very high” and far from acceptable.
“Historically, if you look back at the different surges we’ve had, when they come down and then start to plateau at a very high level, plateauing at a level of 60,000-70,000 new cases per day is not an acceptable level,” Fauci told CBS News’ Margaret Brennan. “That is really very high.”
Fauci also cited Europe—where cases likewise recently plateaued, only to surge again—as a likely harbinger of where the U.S. is headed. If a 2021 COVID surge is to be avoided in the coming months, Americans will need to remain vigilant.
“So the message we’re saying is that we do want to come back carefully and slowly about pulling back on mitigation methods,” Fauci said. “But don’t turn that switch on and off because it really would be risky to have yet again another surge, which we do not want to happen because we’re plateauing at quite a high level.”
States including Mississippi, Iowa, Montana, North Dakota, and Texas have all recently lifted mask mandates against the advice of health officials. This, combined with Spring Break events drawing revelers from across the country, has the potential to exacerbate COVID case surges during March and April of 2021.
“There is so much that’s critical riding on the next two months,” CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told the National League of Cities advocacy organization. “How quickly we will vaccinate vs. whether we will have another surge really relies on what happens in March and April.”
Citing a “frail” U.S. health system, Walensky noted her hope that local leaders will continue to encourage habits like mask-wearing and social distancing, as well as pushing people to get vaccinated.
The arrival of new strains could lead to a COVID surge in 2021
Compounding what already appears to be troubling news, the B.1.1.7 variant COVID-19 strain, which originated in the United Kingdom, is expected to heavily impact the U.S. in the next 6-14 weeks. According to new research, the variant strain is between 59%-74% more transmissible than the original.
Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said there is reason to believe the new variant may be responsible for the next spike.
“We are in the eye of the hurricane right now,” Osterholm told NBC News’ Chuck Todd on Meet the Press on March 7. “It appears that things are going very well. You can see blue skies. We’ve been through a terrible, terrible year.”
Osterholm said the U.K. variant is currently “wreaking havoc” in parts of Europe, with 27 countries seeing significant cases. Ten countries are “hitting hard” despite renewed lockdowns.
“Four weeks ago, the B117 variants made up about 1-4% of the viruses we were seeing in communities across the country. Today, it’s up to 30-40%,” Osterholm said. “And what we’ve seen in Europe, when we hit that 50% mark, you see cases surge. So right now, we do have to keep America as safe as we can from this virus by not letting up on any of the public health measures we’ve taken. And we need to get people vaccinated as quickly as we can.”
Dr. Celine Gounder, a U.S. infectious diseases specialist and epidemiologist, said in a recent CNN interview that the new strain is “increasing exponentially.” She noted that the U.S. is probably “on a tipping point of another surge.”
“We’ve been tracking it very closely,” Gounder said. “Where it has hit in the U.K. and now elsewhere in Europe, it has been catastrophic. It has driven up rates of hospitalizations and deaths, and it’s very difficult to control.”
“This is sort of like we’ve been running this really long marathon, and we’re 100 yards from the finish line, and we sit down, and we give up,” she continued. “We’re almost there. We just need to give ourselves a bit more time to get a larger proportion of the population covered with vaccines.”