At the White House's COVID-19 response team briefing on Monday, team members said that while case rates and hospitalizations continue to fall, they hope Americans continue to follow public health guidance in the face of new threats caused by variants of the virus.
According to the COVID Tracking Project, the seven-day rolling average of new cases of the virus has been falling steadily for the past three weeks. After peaking at a seven-day average of 246,000 new cases on Jan. 12, that average has fallen to about 145,000 — a still-high number that was not reached during the pandemic until November.
Hospitalizations linked to the virus across the country are also now under 100,000 for the first time since early December, a welcome sign for health care workers. However, hospitalizations still remain elevated at 95,000.
However, the White House briefing comes as the threat of new strains of COVID-19 loom.
A variant of the virus first detected in the United Kingdom is now confirmed to have been found in over half of all U.S. states. The U.K. strain has been confirmed to be more contagious than other forms of COVID-19 according to the CDC, but it's unclear if it's more deadly or severe.
Last week, officials in South Carolina confirmed the first two cases of a strain of COVID-19 first detected in South Africa. While the CDC says that there is "no evidence to suggest that this variant has any impact on disease severity," officials fear that the strain could also prove to be more contagious or less vulnerable to a vaccine.
In the face of the new variants, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky urged Americans to continue social distancing and wear masks, avoid crowds and places with poor ventilation and avoid travel.
Response team member Dr. Anthony Fauci also urged Americans to get vaccinated as soon as they are able, saying it was the best way to prevent the new variants from spreading. He also said that Americans should not wait for scientists to develop vaccines that would better protect against the variants, adding that current vaccines still work well.
Fauci was also asked about Johnson & Johnson's single-shot vaccine trial, results of which were published Friday. The study showed that the vaccine prevented infection to the virus in 66% of cases — compared to over 90% for Pfizer and Moderna.
Fauci admitted that those data points present "messaging problems," but pointed to Johnson & Johnson's effectiveness in preventing severe cases of the disease. Fauci said the trial resulted in only a handful of hospitalizations.
"We want to keep people out of the hospital and we want to prevent people from dying," Fauci said.
The U.S. is continuing to increase its distribution efforts of COVID-19 vaccines. According to Bloomberg, the U.S. is currently distributing 1.3 million doses of the vaccine each day. Two weeks ago, the country was distributing an average of 777,000 doses a day.
Adviser Andy Slavitt said he expects those numbers to improve in the weeks ahead, pointing to a slow start to the rollout which then caused a backlog in doses as people waited for a second shot. Now that distribution has been at it for over a month, Slavitt hopes there won't be similar delays in the future.
Slavitt also said that states should not be stockpiling a patient's second dose in reserve, adding that states are now being given a three-week window of what to expect in deliveries. He hopes that change in policy will continue to expedite the process.
Last week, the Biden administration announced plans to purchase an additional 200 million doses of vaccine from Pfizer and Moderna, an order which the administration expects to be filled by summer.
Finally, Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, the head of a Biden administration panel investigating health equity amid the pandemic, reported some issues in data gathering.
While she added that race and ethnicity reporting for COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations has increased since early last year, she said that currently, only 49% of all COVID-19 diagnoses carry race or ethnicity identification.