A person has a nasal swab used for the coronavirus (COVID-19) test, which was performed on Jan.
Jeenah moon | Reuters
Covid cases are still on the rise in the US, but the rate of infection is showing signs of slowing, especially in some of the states hardest hit by the Delta variant.
Although cases rose to their highest level since January at an average of 152,000 a day for the past week, the pace of the rise in new infections has slowed significantly in the past two weeks, data compiled by Johns Hopkins University shows. The number of new cases rose 11% last week, nearly a third of the seven-day jump from 30% just two weeks ago, the data said.
A combination of the increased number of recent cases and the number of Americans vaccinated means that the virus is infected, according to Dr. Bruce Farber, director of infectious diseases at Northwell Health in Manhasset, New York, may now find fewer people to infect.
“All outbreaks have these spikes, and when the percentage of the population becomes both infected and vaccinated, and it can be a combination of those things, you run out of fuel,” he said. “And in this case the fuel is unvaccinated and uninfected people.”
The US has seen a handful of spikes in cases over the course of the pandemic. Average daily cases hit around 32,000 in April 2020 before subsiding and then rising to a new high of 67,000 a day average in July 2020. Many hoped the pandemic was contained last fall, as the average daily cases dropped to around 34,000 shortly after Labor Day 2020, before the fall and winter holiday season drove a spike in Covid cases to a seven-day average in January of 251,000 cases per day. There was a steep drop after the holidays before the UK alpha variant sparked another surge in cases in the US last April, averaging 71,000 cases per day.
Even as cases approach a new high, it may still be some time before this becomes apparent in local hospitals. Hospital stays and deaths tend to delay case numbers by a few weeks or more as it takes time for people to contract the virus and then get so sick they need urgent care.
Nationwide hospital stays can bend the curve. For the week ending August 23, an average of more than 12,200 Americans were hospitalized with Covid every day, data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention shows. That is an increase of 6.6% compared to the previous week, a smaller jump than in the last few weeks.
The death toll, however, continues to rise rapidly. Johns Hopkins data shows the country’s average daily death toll exceeded 1,100 on Wednesday, a 39% increase from the previous week, driven by large and rapidly rising deaths reported from Florida, Texas, Louisiana and Georgia became.
Some of the states that saw the earliest effects of the delta variant spread are seeing falls or flattening in cases.
Louisiana, which led the country in population-adjusted daily cases for weeks until it was recently surpassed by Mississippi, is now seeing some signs of relief. The state has a seven-day average of about 4,700 daily cases, 10% fewer than a week ago and 20% from its high of about 5,800 daily cases 10 days ago.
Alyson Neel, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Health, said it was too early to know if the Louisiana outbreak had peaked.
“We cannot ignore that there is some daylight in the cases, we cannot ignore that there have been fewer reports of Covid cases for at least a few days, and that is really good,” said Neel.
“I don’t know if we would say we know if we peaked or not, but we’re grateful for the little downward trend in some cases,” she added.
Although case numbers are slowing, it could indicate that the delta surge is finally nearing its peak, but many states are still facing a spate of hospital admissions and deaths. The 139 deaths reported in Louisiana on Aug. 24 are the highest one-day total in the pandemic, according to Johns Hopkins data.
According to the U.S. Department of Health, just under half of Louisiana’s ICU beds were occupied by Covid patients on Thursday, compared with 30% nationwide. The surge is also putting a strain on healthcare systems in Texas and Florida, where more than 50% of ICU beds are currently treating coronavirus cases, according to HHS.
“I would of course hope that people will not see falling case numbers as a sign that we are really out of the woods,” said Dr. Barbara Taylor, assistant dean and professor of infectious diseases at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, told CNBC. “There are so many other factors that we need to consider to take into account how much this puts a strain on all of our systems and all of our health systems.”
Texas has an average of 16,970 daily cases, up 10% from last week. That’s below the state’s record high of more than 23,000 daily cases set in mid-January and shows some signs of easing, but the daily death toll in Texas nearly quadrupled this month to an average of 153 per day.
In Florida, which is responsible for about 1 in 7 new US cases, infection numbers have remained more or less constant for the past week, despite being at pandemic highs. The state, which stopped reporting daily case numbers in May, said it had 150,740 new infections on Friday, compared to 151,764 the previous week, and hospitals are so strained that the Orlando mayor asked residents last week to do so Reduce water to conserve the resources needed to combat the recent surge in Covid hospital admissions.
Florida deaths have now risen to a new seven-day high of 1,486 deaths – the highest weekly total in the pandemic.
In Missouri, which started seeing a spike in cases from early July, daily cases have dropped 10% over the past week to an average of about 2,400 per day. But even there, the number of deaths rose in the past week by 36% to an average of 35 daily deaths.
Infectious disease experts say returning to face-to-face learning for high school and college students will pose another hurdle to slowing the spread, with the potential for localized outbreaks this fall. However, there is a game book on how to fight the virus at this point in the pandemic, Taylor said.
“I think the answers are the same as they have been for a while: vaccinating more people, giving more people more access to vaccinations, and easier access to mobile clinics,” she said, adding that masking and social distancing from those in different households are still important tools.
“We know ways to reduce or mitigate risk in both schools and work environments,” said Taylor. “But I think it’s going to be really challenging in some places, and there are big differences in practice within schools.”