After weeks of progress in the fight against COVID-19, a drop in new cases of the disease in the U.S. has stalled. At the same time, states are rushing to lift restrictions meant to curb the spread of the virus, setting the stage for what could prove to be a dispiriting fourth wave of cases and deaths.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, rescinded his statewide mask order on Wednesday and lifted all COVID-19 restrictions on businesses, declaring, “It is now time to open Texas 100 percent.”
While Texas, like most U.S. states, had seen the number of new COVID cases fall dramatically from the highs reached in early January, in the last week it has gone in the opposite direction, with new cases rising again by 27 percent.
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, also a Republican, issued a similar order on Wednesday.
“The governor’s office is getting out of the business of telling people what they can and cannot do,” Reeves said at a press conference at which he repealed the state's mask order and scrapped all COVID restrictions on businesses.
As in Texas, that move came after weeks of declines in new cases with the exception of the one in which the restrictions were scrapped, when Mississippi reported a 62 percent rise in new COVID-19 cases.
Public health officials have been warning of a possible fourth wave of the pandemic should the nation let its guard down, especially since the seven-day average of new cases remains at roughly 65,000 in the U.S.
“I don’t know why they’re doing it, but it’s certainly, from a public health standpoint, ill advised,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said during a CNN interview on Wednesday night. “If you look at, right now, the curves of the diminution of infections that are going down, it’s reached the point where the last seven days have plateaued. We’ve been to this scene before, months and months ago when we tried to open up the country and open up the economy, when certain states did not abide by the guidelines, we had rebounds that were very troublesome.”
Earlier in the day, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky acknowledged that a year of restrictions was helping to fuel a worrisome change in behavior.
“Stamina has worn thin,” Walensky said during a press briefing Wednesday morning. “Fatigue is winning, and the exact measures we have taken to stop the pandemic are now too often being flagrantly ignored.”
While both Abbott and Reeves have been fully vaccinated for COVID-19, as of Tuesday less than 7 percent of eligible Texans and just over 5 percent of adults in Mississippi had. In Mississippi, 70 percent of white residents had received at least one shot, while just 24 percent of Black residents had, according to data provided by the state.
Lifting mask mandates and other restrictions with so few people vaccinated and in states where cases are on the rise is a risky proposition.
“What we don't need right now is another surge,” Fauci said, adding, “It’s just inexplicable why you would want to pull back now.”
While the Biden administration has been able to ramp up production and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, the question is whether enough people will be inoculated quickly enough to minimize the risk of mutations of the virus.
More transmissible variants traced back to the U.K., South Africa and Brazil are already circulating in the U.S., though existing vaccines have been found to be effective, if to a lesser degree, against them. But each day that the virus continues to circulate, the likelihood increases that a new variant — whose biological purpose is to reproduce — emerges that can evade antibodies produced from past exposure to older strains of COVID-19 or our existing vaccines.
One new strain of the disease, known as B.1.526, was recently detected in New York a year after the city was brought to a virtual halt by COVID-19.
“I am concerned about its immune escape,” Dr. Eric Topol told Yahoo News reporter Alexander Nazaryan on Thursday.
While research continues on the new variant, it will likely not be the last as long as the virus continues to circulate.
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