A sign directing employees to return to work for COVID-19 testing at the World Bank in Washington, October 19, 2021.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters
COVID-19 cases in the United States have fallen to less than half of the epidemic’s recent peak, a sign that the country may get past the punitive wave brought about by the delta variant this summer.
The United States has reported an average of 72,000 new cases per day over the past week, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, down 58% from the latest high of 172,500 daily cases on Sept. 13. Vaccination rates have also risen in recent months — albeit slower than when the shots were first released — for nearly 58% of Americans who were fully vaccinated as of Thursday, CDC data shows.
“Personally, I’m optimistic that this could be one of the last big increases, and the reason for that is because so many people have been vaccinated, and also because so many people have contracted Covid,” said Dr. Arturo Casadevall. Chair of the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “We now have a lot of immunity in the population.”
Hospital treatment is declining. About 51,600 Americans are currently hospitalized with Covid, and according to seven-day average data from the Department of Health and Human Services, nearly half of the 103,000 Covid patients reported at the most recent point in early September. And while the US is still reporting 1,400 daily deaths from Covid, that number is down 33% from the most recent peak of 2,100 deaths per day on September 22.
The number of cases has fallen in every US region, and sharply in the south, where the delta wave hit its hardest during the summer.
Health experts are still urging caution in a country they know has been exhausted by the pandemic. Rising infections in Europe, the possibility of a new species emerging, and the approaching holiday season are concerns despite positive trends.
Warning signs in Europe
World Health Organization officials said Thursday that as the pandemic subsides in the United States, global cases are on the rise again after two months of declines. Data from the organization shows that infections in Europe are fueling the increase worldwide, while total cases continue to decline in every other WHO member country region.
Cases worldwide rose 4% during the week ending Sunday, with nearly 3 million new infections reported during that time. The World Health Organization has measured that Europe alone accounts for nearly 57% of the total number of new cases.
This is worrying for Americans because epidemic trends in the United States have often followed those abroad. The delta wave surged in Europe before taking root in the United States this summer, for example.
Barbara Taylor, associate dean and assistant professor of infectious diseases at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
Population-adjusted case numbers in Europe including the United Kingdom recently surpassed those in the United States, according to a CNBC analysis of Hopkins data, and are up 14% from the previous week.
European countries are reporting a seven-day average of 275 new cases per day per million residents, compared to 218 daily cases per million people in the United States as of October 28.
Threat in a new form
Although case numbers in the United States are trending down, they are still high, and the continued transmission of the virus means there are continuing opportunities for new variants to emerge.
“The ultimate potential threat or thing that worries us all is the ability of Covid to change and transform,” Taylor said. The emergence of a new species “could change everything about the epidemic over the next six months,” she added.
The World Health Organization monitors four different types of Covid of concern, a list dedicated to the most contagious and most severe mutations. or More skilled at evading vaccines and other treatments. Delta remains the most widespread variant in the world, and WHO researchers are tracking more than 30 subtypes of the strain, which are new mutations that haven’t changed enough to be considered single variants.
The Delta series as well as the subspecies is currently gaining traction in the UK, and some scientists say it may be up to 15% more contagious than the Delta itself. With two new adaptations on the spiky protein that allows the virus to enter the body, 93% of delta as well as sequenced cases are in the UK, the World Health Organization reports.
Infectious disease experts told CNBC that there is no immediate cause for concern in the United States
“In every single case you see, there is a limited potential for a new variant to emerge. As long as the fire is on, it can happen,” Casadevall said. But if you get the numbers lower and lower, the likelihood of it happening is much lower.”
Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of infectious diseases at Northwell Health in New York, agrees.
“Could there be another species spreading? Of course. Do I think it will happen now? No,” he said.
“Dark clouds on the horizon”
The upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays mean that more Americans will soon see more loved ones and gather indoors, where the virus spreads more easily. Cases and deaths in the United States reached epidemic peaks after the 2020 holiday season, with an average of more than 250,000 infections and 3,400 deaths per day in January of 2021.
Americans are armed with vaccines this year. However, Farber said, “It’s clear that the dark clouds on the horizon are the holidays.”
The director of the Center for Disease Control, Dr. Rochelle Wallinsky recently gave the green light for parents to take their kids outside this Halloween, with some restrictions.
“I wouldn’t congregate in big places outside and scream like you see at these football games if they weren’t vaccinated,” she said on Fox News Sunday last weekend. “But if you’re spread out to do trick-or-treating, it should be very safe for your kids.”
Walinsky advised using “prevention strategies” such as vaccination and spending time outdoors to make vacations as safe as possible.
It is difficult to visualize the constantly unpredictable course of the virus. But there is consensus among experts that Covid is likely to be transmitted as an “endemic” virus, which means that it is not completely eradicated but becomes more manageable and part of the respiratory viruses that the country and the world deal with on an annual basis.
“The way I see Covid is here forever, and we are learning to live with it,” Farber said. “And we can live with it quite well if we keep it at reasonably low levels and we’re smart about it.”