Despite a year of pandemic-driven social isolation and pain, in which we lost hundreds of thousands of lives, there are encouraging signs on the horizon.
The United States is starting to ramp up vaccinations, with the pace increasing about 5% from last week, while there was a 15% decrease in new cases. And there are other signs of hope amid a winter of dismal milestones.
Warmer weather is on the way, and it’s harder for the virus to spread as rapidly outdoors, experts say.
“Right now, cases are trending down, hospitalizations finally have fallen below 100,000, vaccinations are picking up speed, all of this is great,” CNN medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen said last week. “There are reasons for us to be hopeful, and there is an end we can aspire to, but where we go and how quickly we get there depends on the actions we take today.”
While it will take a concerted effort — and a lot more people following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), like social distancing, mask wearing and getting regularly tested — before we gain a semblance of pre-pandemic life, there is room for optimism.
Cases are going down
For the first time in almost two months, less than 100,000 Americans were hospitalized for Covid-19 on January 30 — and the rate has since continued to decrease. The United States on Sunday reported 81,439 Covid-19 hospitalizations, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project, down from 132,474 hospitalizations on January 6 — the highest number of daily hospitalizations reported so far.
Despite the good signs, Wen still has concerns, including the possibility that more contagious variants could become dominant in the next few months.
If we want numbers to continue decreasing, she says, safety precautions must remain in place.
“There are hopeful signs, but we are at a crossroad, because those signs of hope could quickly become eroded,” Wen said. “Pandemic fatigue is very real. I fear when people see cases trending in the right direction restrictions will get loosened and people will resume their regular activities and cases will skyrocket again.”
More people are getting vaccinated
Crucial to controlling the pandemic is getting about 70% to 85% of the population vaccinated to achieve herd immunity, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
As of February 7, some 39 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine had been administered in the US, which represents about 66% of the roughly 58 million doses distributed, according to data published last week by the CDC.
There is more encouraging news: The number of Covid-19 vaccine doses administered in the US outnumbered new cases 10 to 1 this week.
More than 9 million vaccines doses were administered in the US last week, according to the CDC.
That’s nearly 10 times more than the 958,965 new cases reported in the same seven-day period, data from Johns Hopkins University shows.
New coronavirus cases were down 15% last week compared to the last week of January, according to Johns Hopkins. Meanwhile, the pace of vaccinations increased about 5% from last week, CDC data shows, with the country averaging 1.3 million new shots a day over the last week despite a snowstorm that temporarily closed some sites in the Northeast.
While vaccine distribution started off slow — only 12.3 million doses were administered in the first month — hospitals, health centers and pharmacies are now getting some help to make things run smoother.
Several mass-vaccination sites, including New York’s Yankee Stadium, San Francisco’s Moscone Center and two sites in Maryland, are now serving eligible residents.
National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote to President Joe Biden last week and offered every team stadium as a mass vaccination site. Seven NFL clubs have already activated their stadiums or nearby sites as vaccination centers.
And as soon as this week, pharmacies at CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, Kroger and Publix will offer vaccines in select stores and states to people who are eligible.
Additionally, a third, single-shot Covid-19 vaccine may be on its way. The FDA’s vaccine advisory committee will meet on February 26 to examine Johnson & Johnson’s request for emergency use authorization of its Covid-19 vaccine.
Unlike the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, Johnson & Johnson’s does not have to be stored in freezers and can be stored for three months at refrigerator temperatures.
A new administration
Biden spent his first day in office rolling out his national strategy to get the coronavirus pandemic under control. He signed several executive actions, including ramping up vaccination supplies and requiring international travelers to provide proof of a negative Covid-19 test prior to traveling to the US.
Fauci, the President’s chief medical adviser, helped develop Biden’s plan. He said it was a “liberating feeling” to be able to publicly talk about science without having to contradict the President, a frequent issue he had with former President Donald Trump.
“A lot of what’s hindered our response so far is mixed messaging, where elected officials openly contradicted the advice from public health experts,” Wen said.
“Having an administration that is not muzzling scientists and encouraging their top government scientist to speak to American people is really important for reestablishing trust and communicating urgent public health messages,” she said.
Biden also began his presidency by asking Americans to wear masks for 100 days and requiring their use on federal property.
Transportation Security Administration workers now have the authority to enforce the President’s transportation mask mandate “at TSA screening checkpoints and throughout the commercial and public transportation system,” an authority they did not have under the Trump administration.
The order also requires people to wear a mask while using any form of public transportation, including on board planes, trains, buses, boats, subways, taxis and ride-shares, as well as inside airports and other transportation hubs.
The President’s efforts to encourage — and require — mask wearing and social distancing, Wen says, shows how a leader “can become a role model for the rest of county.”
Upcoming Covid-19 relief
The pandemic has had far-reaching economic consequences. Another 779,000 Americans — nearly four times the level of the same period last year — filed for first-time unemployment benefits in the last week of January, the Labor Department said Thursday.
Despite the dismal numbers, there’s reason for optimism.
Friday’s jobs report noted an unemployment rate of 6.3%, beating economists’ expectations. It also marked the first decrease in two months. Although 49,000 jobs were added in January, however, the nation is still down nearly 10 million jobs since the start of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, lawmakers are debating another federal stimulus package. Biden unveiled a $1.9 trillion proposal that would include stimulus checks, more aid for the unemployed, people facing food insecurity and eviction. The measure also would provide additional support for small businesses, states and local governments.
The plan calls for sending another $1,400 per person to eligible recipients earning less than $75,000 annually. Biden would increase the federal boost people without jobs receive to $400 a week, from the $300 weekly enhancement contained in Congress’ December relief package.
The plan would provide $25 billion in rental assistance for people from low- and moderate-income households who have lost jobs during the pandemic. It would also extend the federal eviction moratorium to September 30.
The House will begin finalizing specifics of the bill this week, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi predicted Friday the measure will reach the Senate “hopefully in a two week period of time” so that “this will be done long before the due date” of the expiration of unemployment insurance in March.
Communities are supporting each other
Despite the bleak news, there have been some silver linings.
For nursing home residents who were quarantined for months on end, the reminders that they are not forgotten are everywhere.
A Boy Scout troop created a “hug booth” for nursing home residents who couldn’t touch their loved ones. A high school student and her brother are also helping seniors feel less lonely with notes and care packages.
But it goes beyond that.
People are finding ways to uplift essential workers risking their lives, such as the cookie competition between two dads that resulted in over 18,000 cookies being delivered to essential workers across Pennsylvania.
Many others have shown support for health care workers. During last week’s nor’easter, a Rhode Island fifth-grader and a family friend swept snow off dozens of hospital workers’ cars to thank them for all their hard work during the coronavirus pandemic.
The pandemic has done more than bring out people’s kinder sides.
It has also sparked romance — such as the couples who found their matches during the pandemic, and the high school sweethearts who were separated nearly seven decades ago and reunited during the coronavirus pandemic and are now married.
As we celebrate the small signs of hope, experts like Wen are urging people to continue following safety guidelines so we can begin to emerge from the worst of the pandemic.