Infectious disease experts are noting a plateau in U.S. coronavirus cases and hospitalizations — though it is far too soon to tie the positive news to ongoing vaccinations.
Instead, experts attribute the decline to the post-holiday season, as less people travel and gather in indoor settings.
“After a long winter surge, the country is beginning to experience a declining number of new COVID-19 infections,” Dr. Steven Gordon, chair of infectious disease at Cleveland Clinic, wrote in an email. “While vaccinations will play an important role in controlling the pandemic, this slowing of cases is probably not yet a result of vaccinations. More likely, the plateau is occurring as less people are traveling and getting together as we move past the holiday season.”
Data from Johns Hopkins University report a steady drop in daily cases since early January, declining from nearly 250,000 new infections to about 170,000 in recent days, per 7-day averages. The nationwide positivity rate, or percentage of tests coming back positive, has dropped from over 13% to 9.4% in January. Hospitalizations are also falling; from about 130,000 in hospital care around Jan. 10 to 118,000 more recently, per 7-day averages from The COVID Tracking Project.
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Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser on COVID-19, told NBC News on Monday that the figures represent a natural peak and plateau.
“The number of vaccines that we’ve gotten into the arms of people, good start we want to keep going, get a lot of people vaccinated, but I don’t think the dynamics of what we’re seeing now with the plateauing is significantly influenced yet, it will be soon, but yet by the vaccine,” he said. “I just think it’s the natural course of plateauing.”
As vaccinations reach further into the population, experts expect a significant drop in hospitalizations, especially among the elderly and those with underlying conditions at higher risk for severe COVID-19, says Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.
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There have been at least 21.8 million COVID-19 vaccinations so far in the U.S., or less than about 5% of the country’s population, per figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We are nowhere near the approximately 75% of the population which needs to be immune before the outbreak dies out from “herd immunity,” Dr. Dean Winslow, infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, wrote in an email. “It is so important for Americans to continue to follow these physical preventive measures until we get to that 75% point.”
Dr. Gordon with the Cleveland Clinic noted that the current pace of vaccinations and level of virus spread will likely require mitigation measures like mask wearing and social distancing through the summer to prevent further virus spread as the country moves to herd immunity.