The 7-day average of daily new cases was just over 72,000 on Wednesday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, a total that is relatively unchanged from last Thursday. Compare those numbers to the previous Thursday, February 11, when the US averaged about 102,000 new cases per day.
Experts say it is too soon to tell whether this one-week flattening represents a small blip or the beginning of a broader issue.
“I’ve been watching this and have been wondering the same thing,” Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, told CN. “We have not seen widespread increases, but there is that flattening. We’ll have to monitor this closely. The other thing we have to track is how the new variant is doing and whether that’s part of the reason.”
Meanwhile, new Covid-19 deaths and hospitalizations, which trail several weeks behind cases, have continued to sharply decline. And the two vaccines approved in the US have shown extraordinary success in limiting severe Covid-19, making the race to vaccinate so important.
Vaccines are already working in the real world
Both in the US and abroad, the vaccines are quickly proving their effectiveness.
A study of about 600,000 vaccinated people in Israel found that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine remains highly effective at preventing symptomatic coronavirus infections under real-world conditions.
The risk of symptomatic Covid-19 — meaning people who were infected with the coronavirus and felt sick — decreased by 94% among people who received two doses of the vaccine, according to the study. Even before the second dose, the vaccine’s effectiveness approached 60%.
The vaccine cut the risk of severe disease by 92% and was highly effective across age groups, too. The vaccine also appeared to protect against a highly transmissible coronavirus variant first identified in the UK, researchers said.
Details of the study were first reported last week, but the full, peer-reviewed findings were published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine. The results confirm that the vaccine remains remarkably effective outside the carefully controlled conditions of a clinical trial.
Dr. Mark McClellan, director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy, described this as a “cratering” of hospitalizations and deaths in nursing homes.
“It is really going down to levels we haven’t seen since before the initial big outbreaks in New York City,” he said. “And that is incredibly good news and a reflection of just how important vaccination in those settings have been. Hopefully it is a sign of what is to come as we get more vaccination going faster now that the weather is better. Now that the number of vaccines and shots in arms is going up.”
A third vaccine for US could be just days away
Then, advisers to the CDC are scheduled to meet Sunday to discuss recommendations surrounding the vaccine’s potential rollout — recommendations that would have to be formally accepted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The efficacy of the vaccine against moderate to severe/critical Covid-19 across all geographic areas was 66.9% at least 14 days after the single-dose vaccination and 66.1% at least 28 days after vaccination, according to the analysis.
“There were no specific safety concerns identified in subgroup analyses by age, race, ethnicity, medical comorbidities, or prior SARS-CoV-2 infection,” the analysis said.
Meanwhile, the US supply of vaccines is set to ramp up significantly in the coming months.
And the FDA on Thursday gave permission for Pfizer’s vaccine to be transported and stored at normal freezer temperatures for up to two weeks, making it easier to get the vaccine to more places. Until now, it had to be kept at between -80 and -60 degrees Celsius, far colder than normal freezer temperatures.
Meanwhile, Johnson & Johnson, if it secures an emergency use authorization, has pledged to make 20 million doses available in the same time frame.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie that Americans should get whichever shot is available the soonest rather than wait for one over another.
“This is a race, Savannah, between the virus and getting vaccines into people. The longer someone waits on getting vaccinated, the better chance the virus has to get a variant or a mutation,” he said. “So, the sooner we get vaccine into the arms of individuals, whatever that vaccine is, once it gets by the FDA for an EUA, if it’s available to you, get it.”
More people becoming eligible for vaccines
Starting Monday, teachers and school staff in Connecticut will be able to start scheduling appointments to be vaccinated, Gov. Ned Lamont and Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz said.
In Georgia, educators and staff members of K-12 schools, adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their caregivers, as well as parents of children with complex medical conditions, will be eligible for vaccination starting March 8, Gov. Brian Kemp said Thursday.
Utah residents will not need to have a doctor’s note on their health condition, Cox said, asking healthy people not to jump ahead in line.
“We’re prioritizing these individuals, again, based on age and these underlying co-morbidities, because they are the greatest risk of hospitalization or death,” Cox said.
Concern on spreading variants
In fact, health officials are preparing for a possible third wave that will be driven by a rapidly spreading variant that was first identified in the UK: B.1.1.7. Data from the CDC shows 2,102 cases of the variant have been detected across the US — but scientists have warned that number likely doesn’t represent the total of cases in the country.
“Right now, it does look as if in the United States, we’re at some risk of another surge due to this variant called B.1.1.7,” National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins said in an interview with CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta.
And a researcher who helped identify a variant first found in New York City said that one seems to be increasing at an alarming, rapid pace.
Dr. David Ho, who led one of the teams, said on Thursday that in recent weeks, they have found the new variant in about 12 to 13% of the positive samples they have tested.
The first detection was in November, Ho told CNN’s Erin Burnett, and early last month, it was “about 3% of the Covid-19 positive samples within our hospital that we study,” Ho said.
“The rather rapid increase is alarming,” he said.
“We could all wish for this to be the last wave,” said Andy Slavitt, the White House senior adviser for the Covid-19 Response Team. “But we wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we weren’t really focused on containment measures for variants, if we weren’t really focused on how therapeutics might help to minimize the effects of the variants, how we might make sure, if we have another wave, it feels different,” he told a webinar held by the American Public Health Association.
To address the growing threat of variants, the CDC is collaborating with public and private labs to expand genomic sequencing capacity. And with the $200 million investment in sequencing from the Biden administration last week, the CDC hopes to quickly reach the goal of sequencing 25,000 sample sequences per week.
Pfizer and vaccine partner BioNTech are testing a third dose of their vaccine against the variants, the companies announced Thursday.
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla told NBC News’ Lester Holt said his company’s vaccine protects people against the B.1.1.7 variant, and there’s data suggesting it works against two other variants, one first detected in South Africa and one first identified in Brazil.
A third shot could raise a person’s antibody response 10 to 20 times that of the first two doses, Bourla said, but it isn’t likely to become a three-dose vaccine.
“We will have an annual re-vaccination, likely with one dose of the vaccine,” he said.
CNN’s Ben Tinker, Naomi Thomas, Amanda Watts, Jen Christensen, Maggie Fox, Cheri Mossburg, Christopher Rios, Arman Azad, Chris Boyette, Elizabeth Stuart, Jamiel Lynch, Lindsay Benson and Artemis Moshtaghian contributed to this report.