A sign instructs employees to return to work for COVID-19 testing at the World Bank in Washington, October 19, 2021.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters
Covid cases in the US have fallen to less than half of the recent peak of the pandemic, a sign that the country may be behind the punitive wave sparked by the Delta variant this summer.
The US reported an average of 72,000 new cases per day for the past week, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, 58% less than the recent high of 172,500 average daily cases on September 13. Vaccination rates have also risen in recent months – albeit more slowly than when they were first introduced – to nearly 58% of fully vaccinated Americans by Thursday, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows.
“I am personally optimistic that this could be one of the last big climbs and the reason for this is that so many people have been vaccinated and so many people have had Covid too,” said Dr. Arturo Casadevall. Chair 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 admissions are also falling. Around 51,600 Americans are currently hospitalized with Covid, up from about half of the 103,000 Covid patients reported at the most recent peak in early September, according to a seven-day average from Department of Health data. And while the US is still reporting 1,400 daily Covid deaths, that number is 33% below its recent high of nearly 2,100 deaths per day on September 22nd.
The number of cases has declined in all US regions, most notably in the south, where the delta wave hit the hardest in the summer.
Health experts are still cautioning a country they recognize is exhausted from the pandemic. Rising infections in Europe, the possibility of a new variant and the upcoming Christmas season are worrying despite positive trends.
Warning signs in Europe
As the U.S. pandemic subsides, global cases are picking up again after two months of decline, World Health Organization officials said Thursday. Infections in Europe are fueling the global increase, while the number of cases in all other regions of the WHO member states continues to decline, according to data from the organization.
The number of cases worldwide rose 4% in the week that ended Sunday, with nearly 3 million new infections reported during that period. According to the WHO, Europe alone accounted for almost 57% of the total number of new cases.
This is worrying for Americans as pandemic trends in the US have often followed those overseas. The delta wave rose in Europe before it found its way into the USA this summer, for example.
“What we see in Europe is often a harbinger of what we see in the US, so I am concerned that cases are on the rise,” said Dr. Barbara Taylor, Assistant Dean and Associate Professor of Infectious Diseases at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
The population-adjusted case numbers in Europe, including the UK, recently surpassed that in the US, up 14% from the previous week, according to a CNBC analysis of Hopkins data.
European countries report a seven-day average of 275 new cases per million daily compared to 218 daily cases per million in the US on October 28.
Threat from a new variant
Although the numbers of cases in the US are declining, they are still high and the continued transmission of the virus means there are still opportunities for new variants to emerge.
“The final potential threat or thing to worry us all is Covid’s ability to change and mutate,” Taylor said. The emergence of a new variant “could change everything about the pandemic in the next six months,” she added.
The WHO is monitoring four worrisome variants of Covid, a list reserved for more contagious and serious mutations or be more adept at bypassing vaccines and other treatments. Delta remains the most dominant variant in the world, and WHO researchers are tracking more than 30 subtypes of the strain, new mutations that haven’t changed enough to be considered individual variants.
The Delta-Plus subline is gaining traction in the UK right now, and some scientists say it could be up to 15% more contagious than Delta itself. With two new adaptations to the spike protein that allow the virus to enter the body , 93% of sequenced Delta Plus cases are in the UK, reports the WHO.
Infectious disease experts told CNBC that there is no immediate cause for concern in the US
“In every single case you see there is a finite probability that a new variant will emerge. As long as the fire continues, it can happen, “said Casadevall.” But as the numbers keep getting lower the chances of it happening are much lower.
Dr. Bruce Farber, director of infectious diseases at Northwell Health in New York, agreed.
“Can there be another variant that is spreading? Naturally. Do I think it’s gonna happen now? No, ”he said.
“Dark clouds on the horizon”
The upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays mean that soon more Americans will see more of their loved ones and gather indoors where the virus will spread more easily. Covid cases and deaths in the US peaked after the 2020 holiday season, with an average of more than 250,000 infections and 3,400 deaths per day in January 2021.
Americans are armed with vaccines this year. “The dark clouds on the horizon are obviously the holidays,” Farber said.
CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky recently gave parents the green light to take their children with them for Halloween this year, with some restrictions.
“I wouldn’t be gathering up in big groups out there and shouting like you see in these football games if you weren’t vaccinated,” she told Fox News last weekend. “But if you scatter your trick-or-treating methods, it should be very safe for your children.”
Walensky advised using “prevention strategies” like vaccinations and being outdoors to make the vacation as safe as possible.
It’s hard to predict the path of a virus that has been consistently unpredictable. However, there is consensus among experts that Covid is likely to become an “endemic” virus, meaning it will not be completely eradicated but rather become manageable and become part of the respiratory viruses that the country and the world grapple with annually.
“The way I see it, Covid is there forever and we’re learning to live with it,” Farber said. “And we can live with it pretty well if we keep it at a reasonably low level and we use it wisely.”