After a devastating post-holiday surge in COVID-19 cases, the U.S. is finally seeing a decline. But experts say that public health measures, like masks and social distancing, are still essential as the vaccine rollout continues.
The number of new coronavirus cases fell by 50% in the country last week from where they were in January, according to briefing from the University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). On January 8, the U.S. saw a peak of nearly 315,000 COVID-19 cases in a single day, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirm. But, on average, there were about 117,900 new cases per day in the second week of February, the IHME says.
Coronavirus-related deaths are on the decline as well. “Daily deaths in the last week decreased to 2,820 per day on average compared to 3,080 the week before,” the IHME briefing states, but COVID-19 remains the number one cause of death in the country.
Although we don’t know exactly what’s responsible for the decline in COVID-19 cases, experts say there are likely multiple factors at work here. Individual people’s behavior (wearing masks, traveling less, etc.) as well as larger actions, such as lockdowns and vaccinations, could all be contributing to the effect.
“I think the most likely explanation is a mix of policy and individual-level behavior change, as people react to what they see in the news and in their communities, but helped along by acquired immunity due to widespread infection plus targeted vaccination,” Natalie E. Dean, Ph.D., assistant professor of biostatistics at the University of Florida, said on Twitter.
It’s also important to recognize just how rough the situation was after the holidays. Public health experts predicted that, after holiday gatherings, we would see a surge in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths that would last through January—and that’s exactly what happened. Now it’s likely that we’re seeing those effects taper off, which makes the drop in cases more dramatic.
At this point, however, only about 12% of the U.S. population has been vaccinated, NPR reports. So it’s unlikely that vaccines are the major force behind this decline in cases right now. “Vaccination isn’t having much of an effect yet on Covid cases. Cases are coming down because of what we’re doing right: staying apart, wearing masks, avoiding travel, and not gathering with others indoors,” Tom Frieden, M.D., former director of the CDC, said on Twitter. “Let’s keep it up.”
While this trend is encouraging, especially as we continue to ramp up vaccinations, it’s important to remember that we are still seeing tens of thousands of new cases per day. So this is the time to stick to the public health tools we have—social distancing, wearing well-fitting masks, avoiding crowds—rather than end them, as some states have started doing.
“Ending state-wide mask mandates and other public health measures because case counts are decreasing is like stopping your blood pressure medication because your numbers have improved,” Uché Blackstock, M.D., emergency medicine physician and founder of Advancing Health Equity, wrote on Twitter. “In both situations, the numbers will likely go right back up.”
So, as tempting as it may be to take this as a sign that we can relax on those measures, it’s definitely not. What we do now—and what we did over Super Bowl weekend—will have a huge effect on our COVID-19 numbers in the coming weeks and months.