As the US COVID-19 death toll approaches half a million, new infections and hospitalizations are finally falling with just 69,228 new cases reported on Thursday – the sixth day in a row they have declined.
Fatalities have been back up for the past two days, with 2,558 new deaths reported on Thursday, while hospitalizations continued to fall to 62,000.
Even though it is too early for vaccinations to make a meaningful difference, average daily COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all down to about half the levels they reached in their respective January peaks.
But the emergence of variants threatens to tigger yet another surge.
There are now more than 1,600 cases of the UK’s B117 ‘super covid’ variant in the US, according to a DailyMail.com analysis. Cases are doubling approximately every 10 days, according to a recent Scripps Research Institute study.
‘Super covid’ cases have exploded in two states that took opposite approaches to the pandemic: California, which has been under some of the nation’s strictest lockdowns, and Florida which has never had a mask mandate.
Cases of the 70 percent more infectious variant have exploded to 433 in Florida, in less than one month since the first case was discovered there.
California has the next greatest number with 195 – less than half of Florida’s current count.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) experts have warned the variant could be dominant by March.
That could trigger a second spring surge of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the US, if the vaccine rollout doesn’t outpace the spread of variants.
University of Washington virus expert Dr. Trevor Bedford warned on a Thursday Twitter thread that California and Florida are the states to watch as predictors of whether the UK variant will kick the pandemic off in the US again, because they are each further along in the variant fight than other states.
Florida has more cases of the UK’s ‘super-covid’ variant than any other state, with more than 400 – and the number there has quadrupled in less than a month. Variants threaten to trigger another surge, and a University of Washington expert says to watch the Sunshine State closely for a prediction of what will happen across the US
Meanwhile, new daily COVID-19 cases continue to plummet nationwide, with the 7-day rolling average falling to just 67,136
Deaths ticked up slightly the past two days, with about 2,558 reported in the US on Thursday, but the daily average is now hovering around 2,000
Despite taking polar opposite approaches to the pandemic, both states saw massive spikes, but are now seeing the same declines, with just 5,000 new cases and 163 new fatalities in Florida and 5,573 infections and 417 deaths reported in California yesterday.
Although they lead the nation for cases of the B117 variant, it is still too early for the more infectious form of coronavirus to be driving up cases, hospitalizations and deaths in either state.
Dr Bedford said in a Twitter thread that he is not convinced the variant – which is already dominant in the UK – will lead to a spring surge across the US because by the time they take hold nationwide, much of the US will either have immunity from infection or be vaccinated.
But he said states like Florida will help the US predict what will happen nationwide, because they are ‘farther along on their B.1.1.7 trajectories relative to the US as a whole,’ in a Thursday Twitter thread.
Experts believe that variants have an opportunity to arise when there are massive spikes in cases because each transmission is as chance for the virus to mutate, and for stronger mutants to take hold.
That makes both California and Florida prime candidates for the B117 variant to take off.
New COVID-19 cases in Florida have been steadily declining since its mid-January peak, and it saw just 5,000 new infections Thursday (left). Daily fatalities lag behind case trends, but have fallen as well, with just 163 new deaths Thursday (right)
US hospitalizations for COVID-19 have fallen to 62,000 – a dramatic decline from the height of
US cases of the UK variant are doubling about every 10 days, new research estimates, with the greatest density of cases in Florida and California (dark blue)
Florida was one of the first states in the US to report a case of the variant, on December 31, 2020.
By February 8, the state was the first in the nation to surpass 200 cases of the variant that emerged in the UK, and is now thought to be up to 70 percent more infectious.
Now, cases have quadrupled since early January, bringing the total to 433.
That’s more than double California’s 195 cases of the variant.
But the figures reported in both states – and the US as a whole – are likely an undercount, because the US is doing such poor surveillance.
Amid the explosion of variants, new cases are still high, but far lower than they were in each state.
California is reporting about 14 cases per 100,000 residents a day, at last falling below the national average of 22 daily cases per capita.
During January, each state saw more than 70,000 new cases a week.
Despite California Democrat Governor Gavin Newsom’s draconian lockdowns aimed at slowing the spread of coronavirus, the state saw one of the worst post-holiday surges in the country.
It saw nearly 15,000 COVID-19 deaths in January, while Florida saw more than 4,500 that month – the deadliest on record for each state.
It’s worth nothing, however, that the population of California is about double Florida’s, meaning the difference in their January death tolls was about 66 percent.
Dr Trevor Bedford says the variant – as well as others that have emerged or been imported into the US – will likely drag out the pandemic, but he’s not convinced they will lead to a massive spring wave of infections and deaths.
On the other hand, an economist and modeler at Pantheon Macroeconomics estimates that the slow pace of vaccination coupled with lax restrictions could allow new cases of the variant to spike to 400,000 a day by the end of April.
Their conflicting predictions mirror the advice of public health officials like Dr Walensky and Dr Fauci, which can sound paradoxical: The worst of the pandemic may well be behind the US, but it will take work to keep it that way.
US health officials are relieved that the post-holiday surge in infections, hospitalizations and deaths is finally subsiding.
But they warn that this progress is delicate, and could be reversed by the fast-spreading variants.
Public health experts have been by and large been puzzled over the what exactly is driving the downturn, but Dr Bedford isn’t.
‘After a ~2 month plateau from mid-Nov to mid-Jan, the US #COVID19 epidemic has undergone a steady week after week decline and is now back to daily case counts last seen in late October,’ he wrote in a Thursday Twitter thread.
He used daily COVID-19 case numbers in US states and compared them to the Rt – or figure that estimates the rate of transmission according to how many additional cases of coronavirus each infection leads to.
When that number is above one, the outbreak is likely growing. When it is at one, the pandemic is considered stable, and when Rt falls below one, an outbreak is likely ebbing.
The UK has used this figure as a critical metric to determine whether it needs to tighten restrictions or can begin to relax them.
Dr Bedford notes that the Rt in the US was greater than 1 in November and December – meaning that each infection led to more than one additional infection, on average.
It led to an explosion of cases, which led to surging hospitalizations and, weeks later, a soaring death toll, with more than 5,000 Americans dying of COVID-19 on the nation’s deadliest day.
‘Generally, Rt > 1 in Nov and Dec corresponding to rising cases and drops below 1 in Jan corresponding to falling cases. We’ve seen a steady decline in Rt from Nov to Feb. Thus, current decline is not a sudden shift in circumstance, but resulted from reaching Rt < 1,’ Dr Bedford wrote.
‘Solely based on continued improvements to seasonality and continued increase in population immunity due to natural infection and vaccination I’d expect this trend to largely continue and the US fall/winter surge to be brought further under control.
‘However, the rapid take-off of B117 will push against these gains.’
In the UK, Denmark and Switzerland, the variant had a growth rate of about 0.7, allowing it go from a fraction of a percent to 20 percent of all cases within two-and-a-half months in the latter two countries, and from 20 percent to dominance in the UK.
In the US, the new study – posted as a pre-print, ahead of peer review on MedRxiv.com – the researchers from Helix and the Scripps Research Institute estimated B117 to be 35 percent to 54 percent more transmissible.
That means that cases are doubling about every 10 days, and the variant likely arrived in the US as early as late November.
‘Our study shows that the U.S. is on a similar trajectory as other countries where B.1.1.7 rapidly became the dominant SARS-CoV-2 variant, requiring immediate and decisive action to minimize COVID-19 morbidity and mortality,’ they wrote.
Studies suggest that the variant is not immune to vaccines, but is more transmissible and perhaps some 30 percent more deadly.
Dr Bedford takes this seriously too, but takes a more optimistic view.
‘It’s not clear to me at this point whether biological increase in transmissibility of B.1.1.7 will “win” against further improvements to seasonality and immunity in ~6 weeks time at the end of March,’ he wrote.
He added that California and Florida might be the best bellwethers for how B117 will progress in the US, because they are ‘further along’ with 186 and 416 cases of the variant, respectively.
So far, cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all declining in both states.
But public health officials will certainly be keeping close watch in the coming weeks to see whether the fast-spreading variants change that.
As the threat of variants looms, experts are further divided about whether and how to get US children back to full-time in-person school.
A Johns Hopkins professor says new CDC school guidelines are scientifically flawed and being used by the Biden administration to stall reopening and appease teacher’s unions.
Dr. Marty Makary, pictured, says new CDC school guidelines are scientifically flawed and being used by the Biden administration to stall reopening and appease teacher’s unions
Dr. Marty Makary pointed to ‘overly burdensome recommendations’ which ‘defy science’ to create what he argues are ‘testing and distancing requirements so extreme it makes consistent in-person learning unachievable for the vast majority of schools in America today’.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rolled out its long awaited guidance on school reopenings last week, recommending universal mask usage and social distancing but not vaccination.
Recommended measures include hand washing, disinfection of school facilities, diagnostic testing and contact tracing to find new infections and separate infected people from others in a school. It’s also more emphatic than past guidance on the need to wear masks in school.
Writing for Fox News Dr Makary said: ‘Many believe what is really happening is that the Biden administration is outwardly calling for schools to be open but behind the scenes accommodating teachers’ unions by subtly stalling on implementing a re-opening.
‘Defying science, the guidelines create testing and distancing requirements so extreme it makes consistent in-person learning unachievable for the vast majority of schools in America today.
‘If we are really listening to the science, it tells us that more kids die when schools are closed than when they are open. I suggest that local schools skip the most restrictive parts of the CDC’s guidelines if they cannot be implemented in favor of in-person learning now.’
Republicans have also attacked the White House over its school reopening policy, claiming the administration is listening more to the teachers unions than science.
‘It’s clear the Biden Administration’s policy is “follow the teachers unions”—not “follow the science,”‘ wrote Republican Rep. Steve Scalise, a member of House GOP leadership, on twitter.
Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis also attacked Democrats for ‘putting politics and special interests ahead of what the evidence and observed experience says.’
He also claimed the administration was listening to the teachers’ unions instead of the science, saying the White House is ‘putting politics ahead of what’s right for kids.’
Makary pointed to ‘overly burdensome recommendations’ which ‘defy science’ to create what he argues are ‘testing and distancing requirements so extreme it makes consistent in-person learning unachievable for the vast majority of schools in America today’. Students and parents holding placards during a car rally to encourage Los Angeles County to reopen schools
Republicans have also claimed the administration is listening more to the teachers unions than science
Dr Makary added: ‘Kids are at the lowest risk of COVID-19 death and least likely to transmit the virus. But they are being deprived of their livelihood by being shut out of school.
‘Adults are at higher risk of death and transmission. But the CDC has no problems allowing them to sit shoulder-to-shoulder for hours on airplanes or go to restaurants, casinos and bowling alleys.
He pointed to an uptick in suicide among children, increased domestic violence, kids not getting school meals and growing substance abuse as evidence ‘the guidelines are dismissive of data showing the harm of ongoing school closures’.
Dr Makary added: ‘These problems may not be evident to wealthy autocrats working remotely in mansions. But in places like inner-city Baltimore, closed schools can have brutal health consequences.’
‘There’s no scientific reason kids, who are lowest risk, should be dead last when it comes to school. It’s nothing short of age discrimination because kids don’t have a voice,’ he added.
Teacher unions want vaccinations for educators before classes resume in person while the administration said that is a ‘priority’ and not a requirement.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki dismissed the Republicans’ criticism when asked about at her press briefing on Thursday.
‘Kids are not Democrats or Republicans,’ she said. ‘The president wants schools to open, five days a week. He wants kids to be in school. Teachers want kids to be in school, and he also believes that teachers should be prioritized.’
First grade students sit at social distanced desks at the Green Mountain School on February 18 in Woodland, Washington
The White House had deepened the confusion on the school reopening process Wednesday with statements that vaccination for teachers are a ‘priority’ but not required.
The final decision, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, is up to the states.
Psaki faced repeated questions on the administration’s policy on school openings as the White House has been asked to clarify its standing on the issue after neither President Joe Biden nor Vice President Kamala Harris would give a direct response when asked about teacher vaccinations.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the administration’s top infectious disease expert, said it would be ‘non-workable’ for every teacher to get vaccinated before schools reopen.
CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky is pictured
The subject has become a national debate as kids continue to hold classes online due to the coronavirus pandemic, school districts look to resume in-person classes and teachers express concern about their safety.
As the administration pushes for schools to resume in person, teachers’ unions have demanded access to vaccines before returning to the classroom. And the Education Department is in want of a leader during this as Biden’s nominee for education secretary, Miguel Cardona, has yet to be confirmed by the Senate.
Psaki had seemed to dramatically scale back the administration’s goal of reopening half of U.S. schools by the end of the president’s first 100 days. She suggested open could mean only one day a week.
‘His goal that he set is to have the majority of schools — so, more than 50% — open by day 100 of his presidency,’ Psaki said during a press conference last week. ‘And that means some teaching in classrooms. So, at least one day a week. Hopefully, it’s more.’
Her comment attracted criticism because the bar was so low.
‘The administration doesn’t have to exert much effort to meet this goal,’ Jonathan Butcher, an education fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told the Associated Press.
Biden clarified Wednesday evening that the goal is to get kids back in the classroom five-days-a-week and said schools might even opt to push classes into the summer ‘like it’s a different semester.’
When CNN’s Anderson Cooper mentioned the one-day-a-week caveat, Biden pushed back.
‘No, that’s not true,’ Biden said, explaining that the actual administration goal was getting kids in classrooms closer to full-time.
Teachers´ unions have said they support reopening schools once officials are able to make the buildings safer, but they need the $130 billion included in Biden’s proposed American Rescue Plan to make it happen.
Dan Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association, said teachers are willing to go back to in-person learning ‘only if this bill is passed, only if the dollars get to the school districts in time for them to be able to do the work that they need to do in terms of spacing, in terms of sanitizing, and only if we get the majority of our teachers vaccinated.’
Biden clarified Wednesday evening that the goal is to get kids back in the classroom five-days-a-week and said schools might even opt to push classes into the summer ‘like it’s a different semester’
Biden is now caught between teachers´ unions expressing caution towards his expanded goal on reopening, and critics who say classes need to resume in person.
Data from Burbio, a service that tracks school opening plans, recently reported that 66% of K-12 students already are learning in-person to some degree.
‘In places across America where public education depends on the whims of a powerful public sector union, the best interests of children have often come dead last,’ Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, said during a floor speech earlier this month. ‘As the months have rolled by and the data have poured in, it´s become clear that schools can open safely.’
‘An administration that puts facts and science first would be conducting a full-court press to open schools,’ McConnell said.
Part of what’s contributing to the confusion, according to National Education Association President Becky Pringle, is that there’s no one-size-fits-all program that schools can implement to meet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on how to safely reopen.
‘It was an acknowledgment that every school has different challenges in meeting those guidelines,’ Pringle said, noting that implementing social distancing guidelines, for example, would be a different challenge in crowded urban schools than it would be in more sparsely attended rural schools.’