Experts are warning of a potential Covid-19 surge while several governors are loosening restrictions
For weeks, public health leaders across the US have stressed that now is not the time to ease Covid-19 restrictions and let up on safety measures, warning that another potentially dangerous surge, fueled by variants, could come soon.
But despite the repeated warnings, more governors are easing Covid-19 measures.
With less than 7% of residents in his state fully vaccinated and as communities are still reeling from a devastating series of winter storms, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order rescinding most of his previous virus-related orders. The order lifts the statewide mask mandate and allows businesses to operate at 100% capacity, effective March 10.
The governor said that a county judge could opt to use mitigation strategies if Covid-19 hospitalizations in any of the state’s 22 hospital regions rise above 15% of the hospital bed capacity in that region for seven days straight. But they cannot impose jail time for people who don’t follow Covid-19 orders nor can residents be penalized for not wearing masks, he said.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the move “makes no sense” while Austin Mayor Steve Adler said he was “dumbfounded” by the announcement and pleaded with residents to “act like we do have a mask mandate, for people to continue to wear it, for businesses to continue to require it.”
In Mississippi, Gov. Tate Reeves said starting Wednesday, the state would be lifting its county mask mandates and allowing businesses to operate at full capacity.
“Our hospitalizations and case numbers have plummeted, and the vaccine is being rapidly distributed. It is time,” he wrote on Twitter.
However, health experts say now is not the time to lift the restrictions.
“This is a gigantic mistake,” Dr. Jonathan Reiner, professor of medicine at George Washington University, said of the Texas and Mississippi announcements. “We’ve seen this movie and it doesn’t turn out well.”
Ohio’s Gov. Mike DeWine also announced revisions to public health orders, including dropping the 300-person limit for events at banquet centers while Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer unveiled a series of eased restrictions taking effect Friday, including expanded capacity for restaurants, retail, gyms, stadiums and other facilities.
In Chicago, officials announced indoor capacity at bars, restaurants and other businesses can now be increased to 50% and bars and restaurants will be allowed to remain open until 1 a.m.
And in Louisiana, the majority of businesses — including restaurants and salons — will be allowed to move to 75% capacity, while religious services will no longer have capacity limits, the governor said.
Testing demand is dropping
It’s true that cases are down from their January peak and experts were encouraged by a steady decline in Covid-19 case numbers for several weeks.
But it’s important to note two factors: First, the steep weeks-long decline of cases that was reported in the US seems to have leveled off, according to the CDC director. And that plateau comes at still very high numbers — with the US averaging more than 65,000 new cases daily for the past week.
And second, fewer people appear to be getting tested although Covid-19 testing remains a powerful tool in the country’s battle against the virus, according to the CDC.
In the week that ended Monday, the US recorded an average of about 1.5 million Covid-19 tests daily, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project.
That’s about 26% fewer than the average in mid-January, when the US saw a seven-day average of more than 2 million tests reported.
“Widespread testing must continue in order to defeat the pandemic,” Dr. Greta Massetti, from the CDC, told CNN. “It will take many months for all Americans to have the opportunity to receive one of the vaccines available.”
“In the meantime, it’s essential that people continue to take preventive measures.”
More good news for vaccines
So far, more than 51.7 million Americans have received at least their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, according to CDC data.
More than 26.1 million have received both doses, according to the data. That means roughly 7.9% of the US population is fully vaccinated against the virus.
The good news: President Joe Biden announced Tuesday the US will have enough Covid-19 vaccine doses for every adult American by the end of May — speeding up the timeline of the administration’s previous goal by two months.
His remarks came as the President officially announced a partnership between pharmaceutical companies Merck and Johnson & Johnson to help expand production of the recently authorized Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine.
Governors across the country have said the extra doses will help quickly ramp up vaccinations and some have even announced expanded eligibility guidelines as a result of the added supply.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced that starting Wednesday, all frontline essential workers in Group 3 are eligible to make vaccine appointments, noting that the state also plans to make residents with comorbidities in Group 4 eligible later this month.
North Carolina has created the groups to set vaccine priorities, and is already vaccinating Groups 1 and 2 which include, healthcare workers, long-term care staff and residents and older adults.
“The third vaccine and improving vaccine supply will help us get more people vaccinated more quickly,” the governor said. “But as we’ve said before — we still don’t have enough vaccines. You may have to wait for an appointment even if today’s action means you are eligible to get vaccinated.”
For Americans who have already received a first dose, Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine should not replace second doses of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines except in “exceptional situations,” the CDC warned.
“The Covid-19 vaccines are not interchangeable, and the safety and efficacy of a mixed-product series has not been evaluated,” Dr. Sarah Mbaeyi, CDC medical officer, said Tuesday. “We don’t want people to just start mixing and matching with whatever is easiest to get.”
Vaccine guidance coming soon
For Americans who are already fully vaccinated, recommendations on what they should do are on their way.
The CDC will release guidance for fully vaccinated people when it is finalized later this week, a CDC official told CNN.
The official confirmed the broad themes contained in the guidance that were first reported by Politico.
The guidance is reported to include a recommendation that fully vaccinated people limit their social interactions to small home gatherings with other fully vaccinated people.
It reportedly will also recommend that fully vaccinated people continue to wear masks in public and practice social distancing. It’s a recommendation that’s also been made by other health officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Additionally, the guidance will reportedly include scenarios for Americans to consider when making plans, including travel.
CNN’s Jen Christensen, John Bonifield, Jason Hoffman, Deidre McPhillips, Alec Snyder, Rebekah Riess, Gisela Crespo and Chris Boyette contributed to this report.