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WASHINGTON — Biden administration officials on Friday warned of a “very concerning” uptick in Covid-19 cases this week, urging Americans not to let down their guard despite an ongoing vaccination campaign and case rates that are substantially lower than their peak last month.

“We may be done with the virus, but clearly the virus is not done with us,” Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a White House press briefing. “I know people are tired and they want to get back to life, to normal, but we’re not there yet.”

Walensky’s shift in tone comes after a slight but noteworthy uptick in reported Covid-19 cases. Health officials have reported over 70,000 cases each of the past three days, the first increase after roughly seven weeks of plummeting case counts.

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The current totals are dramatically lower than mid-January’s, when the country recorded over 250,000 each day. But they are still high — more than double the initial 2020 outbreak, which saw roughly 30,000 daily cases in April, and a surge in July, which saw roughly 65,000.

“We at CDC consider this a very concerning shift in the trajectory,” Walensky said. “The most recent seven-day average of cases, approximately 66,350, is higher than the average I shared with you on Wednesday. In fact, cases have been increasing for the past three days compared to the prior week.”

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Walensky sounded the alarm even as the U.S. continues to administer roughly 1.3 million vaccine doses each day, according to CDC data. The country has distributed over 68 million vaccine doses already, and roughly 14% of Americans have received at least one dose of the two-dose vaccine regimen.

Most Americans, however, likely won’t be vaccinated for months, leaving huge swaths of the population susceptible to the virus, which has already resulted in over 500,000 U.S. deaths.

The officials also warned that new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes Covid-19, could set back the U.S. pandemic response if Americans let down their guard. Anthony Fauci, the government researcher and chief medical adviser to Biden’s pandemic response, warned that February’s encouraging news could be erased if case counts hover at their current level instead of dropping further.

“If we plateaued at 70,000, we are at that very precarious position that we were at right before the fall surge,” he said. “We don’t want to be people always looking at the dark side of things, but you want to be realistic.”

The White House briefing occurred as a Food and Drug Administration committee considered whether to recommend the authorization of a new, one-dose vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson.

“More vaccine is on our way,” Walensky said. “We are at the precipice of having another vaccine in our toolbox.”

That hearing, however, also featured its own warning, particularly concerning the presence of new and potentially more transmissible variants of the virus, particularly three first discovered in Brazil, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.

“We have to assume, in the absence of other information, that these variants probably could exist throughout the entire U.S.,” said Adam MacNeil, a CDC epidemiologist.

The U.S., he added, is currently “nowhere close” to having herd immunity.

Despite the concern over the new variants, Fauci urged Americans to become vaccinated as quickly as possible, even as he highlighted ongoing trials from the drug manufacturer Moderna to determine whether a potential “booster” shot could help protect against the South African variant specifically.

“Get vaccinated,” Fauci said. “The vaccine that is available to you — get that vaccine.”

Matthew Herper contributed reporting.

  • The variants are / will be community-spreading mutations. There will be more yet, as a virus never stops mutating. Public figures like Osterholm just want people to realise it ain’t over yet, and to keep using protective spread-curbing smarts. The vaccines will do a major job, but we are definitely not out of the woods. We’ll see (and lose track of) lots more coded variant names – just remember this is a pandemic that went way out of control, and will require work by EVERYONE to get a grip on it. Luckily there are several vaccines in development by other companies, and Covid treatments are also being stepped up. Silver lining.

  • More doom and gloom. Nobody thinks we are at herd immunity yet. But every day more than a million of our most vulnerable citizens are being protected. Focus on good news for a change.

  • I don’t know what is going to happen, obviously. However, we need to look at a different # than raw cases. We had terrible weather recently that caused testing to plummet. As the weather gets better, more people are likely to get tested, hence more cases. Obviously, less testing means fewer cases.

    The average positivity rate yesterday was 4.1% – not going up. I think that number means more. We could test the whole country today and have 300k cases or nobody and cases would be 0 but that wouldn’t mean things have gotten better/worse.

    • Now Jeremy-you simply cannot apply logic and common sense to this! It MUST be that people are BAD doing BAD things!! Oh and of course-SCARY NEW VARIANTS.
      Franky those in power pick whatever goal post they choose – and shift those goal posts if one is getting a weeee bit too hopeful!

  • I do not see discussion of what might be driving the uptick, and I am starting to fear CDC is hiding things from us. I do not have the education to judge most of it, but consider the following:
    1. The “UK variant” – Dr. Michael Osterholm has been saying it will drive a surge worse than anything we have seen so far.
    The mitigating news (not “Good News” there may be none) is, immunity to the first strain, dare I call it Wuhan, is supposed to give immunity to UK. But it is more pathogenic and more contagious.
    2. Reinfection by Wuhan. Despite a huge step up in our genotypng, we are not being told who frequent that is, compared to infection by UK or other variants. Why not? I find it worrisome.
    3. Variants such as South African, or Brazilian, or Californian or Danish, or ??? evading immunity conferred by vaccinations we use here (probably any in the world) and infecting people who were immune to Wuhan.

    I find this one the most scary. If people who had immunity in March 2020 lost it and are now getting reinfected, that is bad, but one shot of any of our vaccines will probably make them immune another year or so.

    But if the variants escape all immunity people here have – and remember, about 1/4 to 1/3 of us have been infected, by many estimates – then we are due for a brand new, very likely worse, epidemic than we have had so far.

    Being told to wear two masks, when we are supposed to be getting 2M shots in arms per day very soon – that makes me wonder.

    I saw a Federal public health official telling people not to go to South Africa or Brazil – it is probably too late, but, the variants were identified in November – why does CDC beg people to do what is responsible? Why not ban travel/enforce a 2 week quarantine on all arrivals? I am worried they are not being straight about the variants because they do not want to be blamed for letting them in.

    • Osterholm is by far the most pessimistic of the experts I see quoted regularly. He may be right, but other epidemiologists are more confident that vaccinations will blunt the worst of the surge.

    • “Wuhan variant” – A.1 was replaced by B.1 strains as early as February 2020(when the virus suddenly became more infectious). Most global infections and initial immunity since then are from B.1 strains and the numerous mutations they have developed(including “Brazilian variant” – P.1).

      The recent infection surge in the US was brought about by 3 “home grown” variants(one of the latter 2 apparently has immune escape features):

      B.1.2/20C-US (appeared in Texas in May 2020 – believed to be “main” strain in January 2021)
      B.1.427 (it is assumed it appeared in California in July 2020)
      B.1.429 (also appeared in California but possibly later)

      British variant(B.1.1.7) is only getting started in the US, but appears to be “branching off” and developing features of South African variant(B.1.351), which likely means it has some anti-body resistance and therefore at least some “existing” immunity is now lost and reinfection is possible(mostly with those who only had acquired and not vaccine immunity).

      As for the CDC, it’s business as usual. Even though they try to pretend their previous problems were all Trump’s fault.

    • Marc – I know he is by far the most pessimistic, but what has me inclined to believe him over the others is the outbreak in England, when there profiles of past illness and recent vaccinations are so similar to ours, and the outbreaks in Manaus, where they thought there was up to 70% past infection, but now, presumably due to the variant escaping immunity people had to the first strain, they have another huge outbreak.

      I am very much hoping i am wrong but right now ?????

    • Xander – thanks for the info. Do you have a link to any estimates of how prevalent the various variants, especially possible immunity escaping variants, are in the US, or better yet, by region in the US?
      They found two cases of B.1351 right in my backyard, about two weeks back now, and one of the patients had no record of travel – and since then, they have given NO news at all. I understand there is possible stigma, but to me, they should tell us where the person works and lives to try to catch all the new infectees.
      I am pretty sure they have good local stats, because Stanford is doing a bunch of genotyping of local swabs and I am 30 minutes from Stanford – but we are told nothing. Thanks for any info you have.

    • I HIGHLY advise you to listen to some TWiV (This week in virology) podcasts as 90% of what you have regurgitated is just flat out false or not known. Listen to actual VIROLOGISTS who work with these things for years not a blowhard like Osterholm (who very clearly is enjoying his pessimistic time in spotlight, who still thinks “just say no” campaign will solve ALL society’s problems). Too many talking bubble head have NO idea of nuance of 99% of which they pontificate on-but media portrays them as “experts” when they are NOT

    • Monyka = As I said, it is not so much that I believe Osterholm, I do not know anything about him and have no opinion of him- it is reading that there was very recently a big outbreak in southern England and Holland, and the outbreaks in Manaus, and South Africa. Also, no one is actually saying “We are sure the vaccines used in the US are effective against all the variants”.
      I do not know if your criticisms against Osterholm are valid or what virologists say, but shouldn’t I go with what is actually happening rather than anyone’s claims?

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