Experts sound alarm of possible new COVID surge as US cases once again rise

A health advisory sign on a beach in Florida.
Enlarge / A health advisory sign on a beach in Florida.

In mid-January, US cases of COVID-19 were in a nosedive from a towering record of over 315,000 new cases in a single day earlier in the month. And now, the pace of vaccinations has reached a heartening clip of 2.5 million per day. There’s almost a whiff of freedom from our pandemic confines in the sweet spring breeze.

But as anxious as we all are to return to normal life, the pandemic is not yet done with us.

The dramatic decline in cases ended weeks ago and plateaued at a disturbingly high level, matching daily case numbers seen in mid-October, at the base of the winter surge. Meanwhile, more transmissible variants of the pandemic coronavirus are swirling around the country. The B.1.1.7 variant—estimated to be around 50 percent more transmissible than earlier versions of the virus—is expected to become the predominant virus circulating in the US next month.

Alongside these troubling trends, many states have prematurely eased restrictions and Americans have let down their guard in turn. An alarming example is the hordes of revelers who traveled to Florida for spring break, prompting some local authorities to issue curfews and close roads.

Now, cases are on the rise. The country’s most recent seven-day average for daily new cases is about 57,000, an increase of 7 percent from the prior seven days, Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a White House press briefing Friday. The country’s seven-day average of daily hospitalizations is also up slightly.

A little bit longer

Though some states are seeing modest declines, 19 have recorded increases in recent days. Some of those rises are dramatic. Michigan has seen a 132 percent increase in average daily cases over the last two weeks. New Jersey, which has the highest number of daily cases on a per-capita basis, has seen a 19 percent increase in average daily cases over the last two weeks.

With the rising cases, menacing variants, and spring-time socializing, experts are warning of the real possibility of a fourth surge—one that could outpace our accelerated vaccinations.

“I remain deeply concerned about this trajectory,” Walensky said Friday. “We have seen cases and hospital admissions move from historic declines, to stagnation, to increases. And we know from prior surges that if we don’t control things now, there is a real potential for the epidemic curve to soar again. Please, take this moment very seriously.”

Walensky pleaded with Americans—however weary they are—to keep wearing well-fitting masks, social distancing, and avoiding travel and large crowds as vaccinations continue. So far, more than 48 million people have been fully vaccinated in the country, which is only about 15 percent of the population.

“Hang on a little bit longer until more people get vaccinated,” she said. “We have seen so much evidence now that our vaccination strategies are working… we just want to make sure that we don’t end up in a surge that truly is avoidable.”