WASHINGTON – President Biden, facing an increase in coronavirus cases in the country, on Monday called on governors and mayors to reinstate mask warrants as the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned of ” impending catastrophe “of a potential fourth wave of the pandemic.
The president’s comments came just hours after CDC director Dr Rochelle Walensky appeared to hold back tears as he pleaded with Americans to “hold on a little longer” and continue to follow public health advice, such as the wearing of masks and social distancing, to curb the spread of the virus.
The back-to-back calls reflected a growing sense of urgency among senior White House officials and government scientists that the chance to beat the pandemic, now in its second year, may elude him. Coronavirus infections and hospitalizations are on the rise, including a worrying increase in the Northeast, even as the pace of vaccinations accelerates.
“Please this is not politics – reinstate the mandate,” Biden said, adding: “Failure to take this virus seriously is precisely what got us in this mess. in the first place.”
According to a New York Times database, the seven-day average of new virus cases on Sunday was around 63,000, a level comparable to the average at the end of October. That was an increase of 54,000 a day two weeks earlier, an increase of over 16 percent. Similar increases in Europe have led to major outbreaks in the spread of Covid-19, Dr Walensky said.
Public health experts say the country is in a race between the vaccination campaign and worrying new variants of the coronavirus. Although more than one in three American adults have received at least one vaccine and nearly a fifth are fully immunized, the country is far from achieving so-called herd immunity – the tipping point that occurs when the spread of a virus begins to spread. slow because so many people, estimated at 70 to 90 percent of the population, are immune to it.
But states are rapidly expanding access to more abundant amounts of the vaccine. As of Monday, at least six – Texas, Kansas, Louisiana, North Dakota, Ohio and Oklahoma – made all adults eligible for the vaccination. New York said all adults would be eligible starting April 6.
Mr Biden said on Monday that the administration was taking steps to expand vaccine eligibility and access, including opening a dozen new mass vaccination centers. He ordered his coronavirus response team to ensure that 90% of Americans would not be more than five miles from a vaccination site before April 19.
The president said the doses were plentiful enough now that nine out of 10 adults in the country – or more – would be eligible for a vaccine by that date. Previously, he called on states to expand eligibility to all adults by May 1. He revised that pledge because states, backed by the planned increase in shipments, are opening their immunization programs faster than expected, a White House official said.
But it was Dr. Walensky’s crude display of emotion that seemed to capture the angst of the moment. Just three months after starting her new job, the former Harvard Medical School professor and infectious disease specialist admitted she was deviating from her prepared scenario during the regular White House coronavirus briefing for the journalists.
She described “a feeling of nausea” she experienced last year when, caring for patients at Massachusetts General Hospital, she saw the corpses of Covid-19 victims piled up, overflowing from the morgue. She recalled how she stood – “dressed, gloved, masked, protected” – like the last in a patient’s room before dying alone, without a family.
“I ask you to hold on a little longer, to get yourself vaccinated when you can, so that all of these people we all love are still there when this pandemic ends,” Dr Walensky said. The nation has “so much reason to hope,” she added.
“But now,” she said, “I’m afraid.
In nine states in the past two weeks, virus cases have increased by more than 40%, according to the Times database. Michigan led the way with a 133% increase, and the northeast also saw a marked increase in cases of the virus. Connecticut has reported a 62 percent jump in the past two weeks, and New York and Pennsylvania have both reported increases of more than 40 percent.
Michigan’s increase has not been attributed to a particular event, but epidemiologists noted that cases began to increase after the state eased restrictions on indoor dining on February 1 and other restrictions lifted in January. Other hot spots include North Dakota, where cases have increased by almost 60%, and Minnesota, where cases have increased by 47%. Of these states, North Dakota is the only one currently without a mask warrant.
The wave of new cases comes alongside promising news: A CDC report released on Monday confirmed results from last year’s clinical trials that vaccines developed by Moderna and Pfizer were highly effective against Covid-19. The report documented that vaccines work to prevent symptomatic and asymptomatic infections “under real conditions”.
Researchers followed nearly 4,000 healthcare workers and essential workers from December. They found 161 infections among unvaccinated workers, but only three among those who received two doses of the vaccine. The study suggested that even a single dose was 80% effective against the infection two weeks after its administration. Studies are continuing to determine whether vaccinated people can still transmit the virus to others, although many scientists consider this unlikely.
The pace of vaccination continues to accelerate. The seven-day average of vaccines administered reached 2.76 million on Monday, an increase from the previous week’s rate, according to data reported by the CDC on Sunday alone, to nearly 3.3. million people have been vaccinated, said Andy Slavitt, senior pandemic adviser at the White House.
Wider eligibility pools are expected to further reinforce this, with more than three dozen states now allowing all adults to sign up for vaccines by mid-April.
Minnesota opens to all adults on Tuesday and Connecticut on Thursday. Florida lowered the eligibility age to 40 and Indiana lowered it to 30.
At the same time, outbreaks of Covid in some states are making health officials increasingly nervous. Similar escalations several weeks ago in Germany, France and Italy have now turned into major epidemics, Dr Walensky said.
“We know travel is on the rise, and I’m just worried we may not be able to see the surges we’ve seen over the summer and winter again,” she said.
As his presidency enters its third month, Mr Biden is still waging battles launched by his predecessor, who turned the act of wearing a mask into a political statement. From the moment he took office, Mr. Biden used his executive power to impose mask requirements where he could – on federal property. And he urged all Americans to “hide away” for 100 days.
But some governors, especially in more conservative states, have ignored it. When the governors of Mississippi and Texas announced this month that they would lift their mask mandates, Mr Biden denounced the plans as a “big mistake” reflecting “Neanderthal thinking.”
In Texas, a recent drop in cases could be reversed. Although the Times database shows that over the past two weeks, coronavirus infections have fallen 17%, deaths have declined 34%, and hospitalizations have fallen 25%, the seven-day average of Newly reported coronavirus infections rose Sunday to 3,774. As of Wednesday, the average number of cases was at a low of 3,401.
“There is something particularly difficult about this moment,” said Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, a former senior official with the Food and Drug Administration who now teaches at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. With more and more Americans being vaccinated and the potential to end the pandemic in sight, he said, “It feels like every case is unnecessary.”
Dr Walensky, who has issued several warnings in recent weeks about the need to maintain mask wear and social distancing, said she plans to speak to governors on Tuesday about the risks of the restrictions being lifted prematurely.
“I know you all want to be done so badly,” she said. “We’re almost there, but not quite yet.”
Eileen Sullivan contribution to reports.