Despite cases falling, these factors will determine how pandemic unfolds from here

A grim new forecast confirms what experts caution amid declining Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations: when it comes to the pandemic, the US is not yet out of the woods.

Another 130,000 Americans are projected to die of the virus over the next three and a half months, according to the latest model from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

And while Covid-19 numbers may be trending in the right direction now, there are four key factors that will determine how the next months unfold, the IHME said in a briefing accompanying its model.

The two first ones are what will likely help the pandemic numbers continue a downward trajectory: increasing vaccinations and declining seasonality — referring to the pattern of lower transmission that’s likely in the US during the spring and summer months.

“Two factors, however, can slow or even reverse the declines that have begun,” the IHME team said.

The first factor is the spread of the B.1.1.7 variant, which was first identified in the UK and experts warned could become the dominant strain in the US by spring. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows more than 980 cases of the variant have so far been detected across 37 states.

The second factor, according to the IHME team, is “increased behaviors that favor COVID-19 transmission.”

“Transmission has been contained over the winter through mask wearing, decreased mobility, and avoidance of high-risk settings such as indoor dining,” the team said. “As daily case counts decline and vaccination increases, behaviors are likely to change towards increased risk of transmission.”

That’s why experts say now is not the time for the US to let down its guard. But a growing list of governors are loosening Covid-19 restrictions.

On Friday, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said the state rolled back Covid-19 restrictions on youth sports, allowing parents or guardians of young athletes to attend. On the same day, Maine’s governor issued an executive order expanding gathering limits for houses of worship.

Indoor dining — with capacity limits — resumed in New York City ahead of the Valentine’s Day holiday, with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announcing Friday he was extending bar and restaurant closing times to 11 p.m. statewide.

‘One step closer to winning the war against COVID’

Despite the concerns that remain, officials are hopeful that as vaccinations continue ramping up, they’ll begin making their mark on the pandemic’s course.

So far, about 37 million Americans have received at least their first dose of the two-part Covid-19 vaccines available to the US market, CDC data shows. About 13 million Americans are now fully vaccinated, according to the data.

“Our vaccine supply is going up, the positivity rate is going down and we’re getting one step closer to winning the war against COVID each day,” Cuomo said in a statement, referring to New York’s vaccinations.

The state has so far administered 90% of the first dose vaccines it’s received from the federal government and more than 80% of first and second doses, the governor said.

In California, officials announced millions of people will be added to the vaccination priority list, including residents “at high risk with developmental and other disabilities” and residents with serious underlying health conditions. The plan, which will begin mid-March, broadens the ages from 65 and older to ages 16 through 64 who are in those categories.

But the announcement comes as the state continues to face challenges, including “scarcity of vaccine,” said California Health and Human Services Agency Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly. That shortage of supply forced several Los Angeles mass vaccination centers to close last week.

The move to vaccinate more prioritized groups — especially people with comorbidities or underlying health conditions — hasn’t been uniform nationwide, a CNN analysis showed.

In some states, people with underlying health conditions are not yet eligible to receive the vaccine.

In states where they are, there is variation in what conditions make someone eligible and what is required to confirm that condition. And where those groups are eligible for a vaccine, counties may have different timelines in how quickly those groups are getting vaccinated.

A new challenge over the weekend

Meanwhile, some parts of the US face another challenge that’s slowing down vaccinations: weather.

Federal officials expect Covid-19 vaccine shipments to Texas will be delayed this week because of a powerful winter storm, Texas Division of Emergency Management Chief W. Nim Kidd said.

“Our vaccines that are set to arrive on Sunday, Monday will probably not arrive until Wednesday, Thursday, so we will see delays in vaccine coming into the state,” Kidd said.

Some local outdoor vaccination facilities also shut down ahead of the storm, the chief added.

“Indoor vaccination administration, as long as it is still safe to drive there, will continue,” Kidd said.

Meanwhile in Oregon, the mass Covid-19 vaccination site at the Oregon Convention Center will be closed Sunday due to weather, according to a tweet from Kaiser Permanente NW. The center is located in Portland, where snow and rain have caused widespread power outages.

Those who had appointments will be contacted to reschedule, another tweet said.

How CDC recommends you travel

Meanwhile, as officials continue to track both ongoing vaccinations and the spread of variants, there have been questions about whether there could be changes coming to travel-related requirements.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg recently said the Biden administration was considering a rule that would require negative Covid-19 test results for domestic air travel.

But the CDC told CNN the agency does not currently recommend a Covid-19 testing requirement before domestic air travel.

“At this time, CDC is not recommending required point of departure testing for domestic travel,” according to the CDC statement. “As part of our close monitoring of the pandemic, in particular the continued spread of variants, we will continue to review public health options for containing and mitigating spread of COVID-19 in the travel space.”

The CDC also added it does not recommend travel at this time.

“If someone must travel, they should get tested with a viral test 1-3 days before the trip,” the agency said. “After travel, getting tested with a viral test 3-5 days post-travel and staying home and self-quarantining for 7 days, even if test results are negative, is a recommended public health measure to reduce risk.”

And just because someone is vaccinated, does not mean they have a free pass to travel and not follow guidelines, Dr. Anthony Fauci has previously cautioned.

“It is not a good idea to travel, period,” Fauci has said. “If you absolutely have to travel and it’s essential then obviously, one would have to do that. But we don’t want people to think because they got vaccinated then other public health recommendations just don’t apply.”

This content was republished with permission from CNN.

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