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COVID-19 Rates Are Declining, but Experts Keep Watchful Eye on Variants

A healthcare worker screens a patient for COVID-19 at a drive through coronavirus testing site.

Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Infection, hospitalization, and mortality rates fell last week for the first time in months.
  • With the rapid spread of new viral variants, however, the U.S. may see surges in the months ahead.
  • Public health experts say wearing masks, social distancing, and vaccines are the best tools to continue driving down rates of infection and death.

Over the last couple of weeks, a promising trend has emerged. COVID-19 infection, hospitalization, and mortality rates are all on the decline after each of these indicators peaked across many U.S. states earlier this month.

Between January 28 and February 3, weekly new cases dropped more than 16% from the previous week and dropped below one million for the first time since early November, according to the COVID-19 Tracking Project. Ten states saw drops of more than 25% in new cases. And deaths from the illness declined for the first time since mid-October (exempting those correlated with a holiday reporting period).

Experts say that the data is cause for some hope. Researchers at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington in Seattle, have developed COVID-19 projection models that point to a steady decline. The models show that after a peak in late January, daily deaths and hospitalizations will continue to drop and that infections will subside across nearly all states in the coming weeks.

But mortality rates are still strikingly high and viral transmission is about three times greater than they were during last summer's surge. With the imminent spread of new variants of the virus, new surges may still be on the horizon.

Ali Mokdad, PhD, a professor of health metrics sciences at IHME and chief strategy officer for population health at the University of Washington, says these predictions will only hold true if three factors remain constant:

  • The spread of new variants does not get out of hand
  • Supply and administration of vaccines remains steady
  • Americans continue to take all the safety precautions that have been recommended throughout the pandemic

What This Means For You

The new trends may be a reason for hope. But with the spread of more contagious variants in the coming weeks, experts say it’s important to continue to social distance, wear a mask, and opt for a vaccine—if you can—when you are eligible. 

How New Variants Factor In

Even as vaccinations are being distributed nationwide, the spread of viral variants may complicate the predictive models. The U.S. scientific community is generally focused on the threat of three strains that originated in the U.K., South Africa, and Brazil.

Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech, indicated that their vaccines are effective against B.1.1.7, the variant from the U.K. This strain is up to 70% more transmissible than the earlier version of the virus, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Though this variant may not cause a higher fatality rate, increased infections may lead to more hospitalizations and greater strain on healthcare systems.

The variants from South Africa and Brazil, on the other hand, are more resilient. Clinical data from Novavax and Johnson & Johnson shows that the vaccine candidates are less effective against the B.1.351 strain.

If these variants become dominant in the U.S., it’s possible that they will drive infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, even if the approved mRNA vaccines do provide some protection. Already, 37 states are reporting cases caused by the B.1.1.7 variant.

“Once a country says, ‘I have a new variant,’ it's going to be here and it's just a matter of time,” Mokdad says.

Don't Let Your Guard Down

According to the CDC, nearly 35 million people have received one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and more than 11 million have received both doses. As the vaccine rollout continues, public health officials say that all people—both vaccinated and unvaccinated—should continue to avoid large gatherings and get vaccinated as soon as they are eligible.

Mokdad warns that while the trends are encouraging, people should not let their guards down when it comes to mask-wearing and social distancing in celebration. Doing so may drive another spike in infections and hospitalizations.

“Unfortunately, our experience with that is very bad,” Mokdad says. “Last year, we were in the same position—cases were coming down, governments opened prematurely, Americans started celebrating and we saw a surge.”

“We know from studies that we are monitoring here at IHME that 25% of people who get a vaccine are telling us that they will stop wearing a mask once we get the vaccine,” Mokdad adds. “People will increase their mobility and they will start seeing each other and not being careful and not wearing the mask.”

An IHME predictive model for daily infections shows that with rapid variant spread, cases could surge to more than 1.7 million per day by June, though that number drops to about 400,000 with the implementation of universal mask-wearing. IHME updates its predictive models every week to account for new data. The models can change based on new information about variants and the genomics of the virus, increased testing and vaccination rates, and knowledge of people’s mobility and mask use.

“We keep improving our models as we go,” Mokdad says. “I am hoping that COVID-19 taught us several lessons. One of them is we need in health, an investment in this type of projection and work, similar to the Weather Channel. We invest in this country a lot of money to predict the weather—we need something like this for health.”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. The COVID Tracking Project. The numbers are high but improving: this week in COVID-19 data, Feb 4. Updated February 4, 2021.

  2. Silberner J. COVID-19 vaccine: will it protect against new variants and do you need a 2nd dose? NPR. Updated February 2, 2021.

  3. European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Threat assessment brief: rapid increase of a SARS-CoV-2 variant with multiple spike protein mutations observed in the United Kingdom. Updated December 20, 2020.

  4. University of Minnesota—Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. New variant COVID findings fuel more worries about vaccine resistance. Updated February 2, 2021.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. US COVID-19 cases caused by variants. Updated February 11, 2021.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID data tracker. Updated February 11, 2021.

  7. IHME. COVID-19 projections. Updated February 4, 2021.