US health officials say how Americans act in the coming weeks could help determine how the Covid-19 pandemic continues to unfold.
While infection numbers are down, they’re still far too high to let up on safety measures, experts warn. And while current Covid-19 trends may be encouraging, variants of the virus circulating in the US could help fuel another surge soon, according to some projections.
Among the top concerns for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: travel.
“We are very worried about transmissible variants,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told CNN late last week. “A lot of them have come through our travel corridors, so we’re being extra cautious right now with travel.”
The director has said that every time travel numbers are up, a surge in Covid-19 cases tends to follow — as was the case with major holidays like July 4, Labor Day and the winter holiday season.
“There’s about the same amount of travel now as happened during Thanksgiving,” she said.
With spring breaks kicking off, air travel is setting pandemic-era records. TSA figures show more than 1.3 million people were screened at airports on Friday — the highest number since March 15, 2020.
Florida — a popular spring break destination — is already seeing packed beaches.
“We’re seeing too much spring break activity,” Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber told CNN Saturday morning. “We’ve got a problem with too many people coming here, we’ve got a problem with too many people coming here to let loose.”
“We are concerned,” the mayor said. “It’s very challenging.”
In Orlando, Mayor Buddy Dyer urged visitors to practice Covid-19 safety precautions.
“We’ve come a long way as a community in slowing the spread of the virus,” Dyer wrote on Twitter. “As you enjoy our city and our wonderful weather this weekend, continue your pandemic precautions.”
Keep your mask on. Here’s why:
And it’s not just the crowds that are making experts nervous. It’s the loosened Covid-19 restrictions that have now taken effect in states across the country.
“I think we are letting loose a bit too early. Because we’re talking about lifting mask mandates,” emergency physician Dr. Leana Wen told CNN Saturday. “I understand reopening businesses, I want our businesses and our schools, our churches and other institutions to reopen. We can do that if we keep in place mask mandates.”
Texans are no longer under a statewide mask mandate. Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves also announced earlier this month he was lifting all county mask mandates. Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon announced the state will remove its statewide mask requirement and allow allow bars, restaurants, theaters and gyms to resume normal operations starting Tuesday.
In Oklahoma, Gov. Kevin Stitt announced Thursday he was doing away with any restrictions on events or residents and was removing a mask requirement in state buildings.
But, citing concerns over the B.1.1.7 variant, that was first spotted in the UK and is now spreading in the US, one expert said now is the “wrong time” to be taking away mask mandates.
“If there was ever a time to put on the mask, this is it,” National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins told MSNBC Saturday. “Every bit of data proves that mask wearing reduces infections, reduces deaths are we are still seeing 50 to 60,000 cases a day right now… this is the time.”
Expanded eligibility in some states starting Monday
So far, more than 68.8 million Americans have gotten at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine while more than 36.9 million are fully vaccinated, according to CDC data.
But the US still faces major challenges when it comes to getting shots in arms, including “constrained vaccine supply ongoing vaccine hesitancy and increasing myths and disinformation,” according to Walensky.
In efforts to boost vaccination numbers, state leaders across the country are announcing expanded requirements for vaccine eligibility.
In Alaska, people living or working in the state who are 16 or older can get the vaccine. Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine is the only one available for use by people who are 16 or older, while the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are both restricted to people 18 or older.
Rhode Island eligibility opened Friday to residents who are 60 to 64 as well as people 16 to 64 with certain underlying health conditions.
In Georgia, residents 55 and older and people with disabilities and certain medical conditions will be eligible for the vaccine starting Monday.
Also starting Monday, Kentuckians 16 and older with any medical or behavioral health condition that the CDC says could be at increased risk of severe Covid-19 illness will also be eligible for the vaccine. Health officials added that smoking will not be in the covered conditions in the state.
Meanwhile in California, people with certain high-risk medical conditions or disabilities will also become eligible for a vaccine on Monday.
“The national supply of the vaccine remains limited, so appointments for the estimated 4.4 million Californians with these conditions or disabilities will not immediately be available to all who are eligible,” state health officials said.
The dangerous side effects of a pandemic
For one, there have been “concerning” declines in childhood vaccinations against other infectious diseases, Walensky said during a White House briefing Friday.
“On-time vaccination throughout childhood is essential because it helps to provide immunity before children are exposed to potentially life-threatening diseases,” Walensky said. “During the pandemic, we have seen substantial declines in pediatrician visits, and because of this, CDC orders for childhood vaccinations dropped by about 11 million doses — a substantial and historic decline.”
As leaders work to get students back to school, “we certainly do not want to encounter other preventable infectious outbreaks, such as measles and mumps,” Walensky said.
“When planning for your child’s safe return to childcare programs or school, please check with your child’s doctor to make sure that they are up-to-date on their vaccines,” she added.
Dr. Anthony Fauci has said he’s also worried about the mental health toll the pandemic has had on the nation.
“That’s the reason why I want to get the virological aspect of this pandemic behind us as quickly as we possibly can, because the long-term ravages of this are so multifaceted,” he told CBS on Thursday.
One expert told CNN Saturday it would be helpful for the US to prepare for a potential surge in mental health care needs by increasing access to mental health services.
“We know that 75% of adults here in America are feeling stressed — are feeling overwhelmed, anxious and depressed,” Riana Elyse Anderson, an assistant professor of health behavior and health education at the University of Michigan, said.
“We have to be willing to heal.”