While states drop COVID-19 restrictions, some experts warn that it is too early to declare victory
While states drop COVID-19 restrictions, some experts warn that it is too early to declare victory

While states drop COVID-19 restrictions, some experts warn that it is too early to declare victory

After months of tireless increases, COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations are falling rapidly across the United States, a welcome respite for many Americans who hope the downturn will herald the beginning of the end of two difficult years and a return to a long-awaited normality.

Although COVID-19 infections remain at levels comparable to previous peaks, with an average of 147,000 new cases still reported daily, politicians across the country are eagerly moving to lift the restrictions, which sense public pandemic fatigue.

In just the past week, governors of 11 states and Washington, DC, have announced an end to their nationwide masking policies and other mitigation measures. Federal agencies and local jurisdictions are also moving to cut back on publicly available COVID-19 data.

Although health experts agree that the COVID-19 drop is encouraging, many urge caution not to declare victory prematurely for fear of a potential viral resurgence. Many experts also express concern about the declining data availability.

“Even though we are in a much better place than we were a month ago, we still need to exercise caution. Opening up too fast can lead to unnecessary increases in transmission, which will only prolong the current wave and potentially accelerate the pace of a new variant. , “said Dr. John Brownstein, an epidemiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and a contributor to ABC News.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also remains vigilant, advising Americans to keep their masks on, especially in areas with high or significant transmission, despite conflicting messages from state leaders.

“We are looking at all of our guidance based not only on where we are right now in the pandemic, but also on the tools we now have available, such as vaccines, boosters, tests and treatments, and our latest understanding of the disease,” the CDC said. Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told reporters on Wednesday during a COVID-19 briefing in the White House, adding that the agency could “soon” provide updated mitigating guidance.

“We want to give people a break from things like wearing a mask when those measurements are better, and then having the ability to reach out to them again if things get worse,” Walensky said.

But despite encouraging downward trends in new cases, hospitalizations and deaths remain high, she added.

Across the country, about 80 million Americans are still unvaccinated, and more than half of those eligible to receive a booster shot have not yet done so, according to federal data.

Some health experts are concerned that the accuracy of COVID-19 case numbers is potentially underestimated due to the increasing availability of home tests, which are rarely reported to health authorities.

“Apart from asymptomatic or mild cases, which are not recognizable by infected people who are not tested, positive home tests are not counted either,” Dr. Maureen Miller, Professor of Epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. told ABC News. “There are also an unknown number of people who have chosen not to be tested because they either can not afford to be infected, because they do not get paid if they are ill, or they do not want to know or believe that they has acquired COVID-19. “

‘It’s not time to let go of our guard’

Nearly two years into the pandemic, there is a sense of exhaustion among Americans over the need to wear masks and other mitigating measures.

“If you really want to get the epidemic behind you, put it in the rearview mirror and just say you’re done with COVID – you may be done with COVID, but COVID is not done with the United States, and COVID is not done with the world either. “We have to do what it takes to make it happen,” he said. Anthony Fauci, Chief White House Adviser, during an appearance on MSNBC on Tuesday. “We are not out of the woods yet.”

Health experts believe that while these frustrations are valid, the benefits of keeping these measures in place for a little longer would be beneficial in preventing a new flare-up.

“This is not the time to fail our guard. Retiring on restrictions must be incredibly nuanced and based on robust data produced at the local level,” Brownstein said.

The question of when it is the right time to end mitigation measures remains complicated, especially given the understanding of scientists that this virus will never be completely eradicated.

“Does that mean we have to wear masks for the rest of our lives? No, because we do not usually design interventions that last forever, especially not those that are not well tolerated,” said Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, lead epidemiologist for Johns. Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

It is important to consider feasibility and implementation issues given how tired people are of the pandemic and the public’s willingness to continue to comply with certain measures, Nuzzo said, adding that it is important for health officials to decide when it is a decent thing to do. point in time. to ease mandates.

Miller told ABC News she believes the time is not now to lift restrictions.

“Removing mask requirements is a big mistake,” Miller said. “I understand the urge not to wear masks anymore. I hate wearing a mask. I do it anyway. Although cases are declining, every state in the United States has elevated levels of COVID-19 proliferation. Not one state is heading for This means that preventive mechanisms must be in place to curb the spread and the subsequent hospitalizations and deaths. “

Health experts are particularly concerned about people at risk, those who are immunocompromised, and children under 5, especially because about one-third of Americans are not fully vaccinated.

“The most frightening aspect of removing masking requirements … is the expectation that only the unvaccinated should continue to mask. The unvaccinated are least likely to wear masks once the requirements are in place,” Miller added. “Removing masking requirements ensures that infectious people will encounter susceptible people in greater numbers – without any protection in place to prevent infection. I would expect to see the number of cases increase.”

A decrease in data availability

The withdrawal in the reporting of COVID-19 data from both the federal and state governments is also of great concern to epidemiologists who have used the data to help track the course of the pandemic and guide decision-making on mitigation.

Since the beginning of the delta rise, dozens of states have completed daily virus data reports. In addition, last month, the Department of Health and Human Services completed the requirement for hospitals to report several important COVID-19 measurements, including a daily total of the number of COVID-19 deaths, the number of emergency department overflows and ventilated patients, and information on critical staff shortages.

“There is no reason why we should turn off data streams. It will not only inhibit our current response, but it will leave us more vulnerable to future waves,” Dr. David Dowdy, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told ABC News.

The curtailment of COVID-19 data stems from “policy decisions to downplay the pandemic and the availability of rapid home tests without the requirement to report data to health authorities,” Miller said, adding that available hospitalization and death data still ” the most convincing proof that COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc around the country. “

Nuzzo stressed that the most effective and efficient way to detect the virus is by having a conscious, active monitoring plan and consistently monitoring and testing certain subgroups of the population across the country to also determine the frequency with which people become infected. as who gets infected.

Wastewater analyzes, sequencing, and data on infections, hospitalizations, and deaths are all critical strategies for understanding the epidemiology of COVID-19 and whether or not it is changing. Every data source is important, Nuzzo said, because they all “tell you something a little different, so you need a little bit of them all to put it all together to help you triangulate your path to the truth.”

Not the last

Exactly when the nation will go from a pandemic to an endemic phase is still up for debate. According to scientists, although the virus will never be completely eradicated, people will eventually have gained adequate immune protection from vaccines or from natural infection to that there will be less transmission with milder infections and fewer hospitalizations and deaths, potentially showing similarities to influenza. .

But so far, many health experts stress that it is crucial that Americans remain vigilant because, as shown by the rapid emergence and spread of the delta and omicron variants, there may still be highly transmissible mutations of the virus, leading to a other significant increase.

“While many may declare victory over the pandemic, we are clearly very far from where we want to be right now, especially with billions of people not yet vaccinated and the threat of a new variant threatening,” Brownstein said.

Nuzzo added that Americans need to be open to the possibility of having to turn the course and reintroduce restrictions.

“Now some people will argue that this means we should never lift the recommendations because people do not want to go back,” Nuzzo said, comparing the use of constant restrictions to a building without a fire that has a fire alarm going on throughout the day. . People will ignore the alarm, she stressed, and therefore there is some value in giving people a break and then bringing masks and other measures back if necessary.

In the end, she said, COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic the globe will face.

“We need to build and maintain your social habits so we can continue to get people to act,” Nuzzo said. “People are tired and will they be ready to go through something again? Or will they just say, ‘Forget it. I’m done’? I think we need to somehow rebuild trust.”

ABC News’ Anne Flaherty contributed to this report.

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