WASHINGTON — Biden administration officials on Friday warned of a “very concerning” uptick in Covid-19 cases this week, urging Americans not to let down their guard despite an ongoing vaccination campaign and case rates that are substantially lower than their peak last month.
“We may be done with the virus, but clearly the virus is not done with us,” Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a White House press briefing. “I know people are tired and they want to get back to life, to normal, but we’re not there yet.”
Walensky’s shift in tone comes after a slight but noteworthy uptick in reported Covid-19 cases. Health officials have reported over 70,000 cases each of the past three days, the first increase after roughly seven weeks of plummeting case counts.
The current totals are dramatically lower than mid-January’s, when the country recorded over 250,000 each day. But they are still high — more than double the initial 2020 outbreak, which saw roughly 30,000 daily cases in April, and a surge in July, which saw roughly 65,000.
“We at CDC consider this a very concerning shift in the trajectory,” Walensky said. “The most recent seven-day average of cases, approximately 66,350, is higher than the average I shared with you on Wednesday. In fact, cases have been increasing for the past three days compared to the prior week.”
Walensky sounded the alarm even as the U.S. continues to administer roughly 1.3 million vaccine doses each day, according to CDC data. The country has distributed over 68 million vaccine doses already, and roughly 14% of Americans have received at least one dose of the two-dose vaccine regimen.
Most Americans, however, likely won’t be vaccinated for months, leaving huge swaths of the population susceptible to the virus, which has already resulted in over 500,000 U.S. deaths.
The officials also warned that new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes Covid-19, could set back the U.S. pandemic response if Americans let down their guard. Anthony Fauci, the government researcher and chief medical adviser to Biden’s pandemic response, warned that February’s encouraging news could be erased if case counts hover at their current level instead of dropping further.
“If we plateaued at 70,000, we are at that very precarious position that we were at right before the fall surge,” he said. “We don’t want to be people always looking at the dark side of things, but you want to be realistic.”
The White House briefing occurred as a Food and Drug Administration committee considered whether to recommend the authorization of a new, one-dose vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson.
“More vaccine is on our way,” Walensky said. “We are at the precipice of having another vaccine in our toolbox.”
That hearing, however, also featured its own warning, particularly concerning the presence of new and potentially more transmissible variants of the virus, particularly three first discovered in Brazil, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.
“We have to assume, in the absence of other information, that these variants probably could exist throughout the entire U.S.,” said Adam MacNeil, a CDC epidemiologist.
The U.S., he added, is currently “nowhere close” to having herd immunity.
Despite the concern over the new variants, Fauci urged Americans to become vaccinated as quickly as possible, even as he highlighted ongoing trials from the drug manufacturer Moderna to determine whether a potential “booster” shot could help protect against the South African variant specifically.
“Get vaccinated,” Fauci said. “The vaccine that is available to you — get that vaccine.”
Matthew Herper contributed reporting.