WASHINGTON – President Biden, facing an increase in coronavirus cases across the country, on Monday urged governors and mayors to reinstate mask mandates as the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is facing “imminent doom” pandemic warned of a possible fourth surge in the US.
The President’s comments came just hours after the C.D.C. The director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky appeared to be fighting tears when she urged Americans to “hold out a little longer” and continue to follow public health advice, such as wearing masks and social distancing, to contain the spread of the virus.
The successive appeals reflected a growing sense of urgency among White House senior officials and government academics that the chance to overcome the pandemic now in its second year may be missing. Coronavirus infections and hospital stays are on the rise, including a worrying spike in the northeast, although the pace of vaccinations is accelerating.
“Please, this is not a policy – reinstate the mandate,” said Biden, adding, “Failure to take this virus seriously is what got us into this mess in the first place.”
According to a New York Times database, the 7-day average of new virus cases on Sunday was 63,000, which is on par with the late October average. That was an increase of more than 16 percent compared to 54,000 a day two weeks earlier. Similar upward moves in Europe have seen the spread of Covid-19 rise sharply, said Dr. Walensky.
Public health experts say the nation is in a race between the vaccination campaign and new, worrying variants of coronavirus. Although more than one in three American adults has received at least one shot and nearly a fifth are fully vaccinated, the nation is a long way from achieving what is known as herd immunity – the tipping point at which a virus slowly spreads because of so many people who estimated at 70 to 90 percent of the population are immune to it.
However, states are rapidly expanding access to more abundant quantities of the vaccine. As of Monday, at least six people – Texas, Kansas, Louisiana, North Dakota, Ohio, and Oklahoma – all approved for a vaccination. New York said all adults would be eligible starting April 6th.
Mr Biden said Monday that the government is taking steps to expand eligibility and access to vaccines, including opening a dozen new mass vaccination centers. He directed his coronavirus response team to ensure that 90 percent of Americans are no more than five miles from a vaccination site by April 19.
The president said the doses are now plentiful enough for nine out of ten adults in the nation – or more – to be eligible for a shot by that date. He had previously asked states to extend eligibility to all adults by May 1. He reversed that promise because states, buoyed by the projected increase in broadcasts, are opening their vaccination programs faster than expected, a White House official said.
But it was Dr. Walensky’s raw portrayal of emotions that seemed to capture the fear of the moment. Less than three months into her new job, the former Harvard Medical School professor and infectious disease specialist admitted that she deviated from her prepared script during the White House’s regular coronavirus briefing for reporters.
She described “a feeling of nausea” she experienced last year when she saw the bodies of Covid-19 victims crowding out of the morgue while caring for patients at Massachusetts General Hospital. She remembered being the last to stand in a hospital room before a patient died alone and without a family.
“I would ask you to hold on a little longer to get the vaccine if you can, so that all of the people we all love will stay here when this pandemic ends,” said Dr. Walensky. The nation has “so much to hope for,” she added.
“But right now,” she said, “I’m scared.”
Virus cases in nine states have increased more than 40 percent in the past two weeks, the Times database shows. Michigan led the way with a 133 percent increase, and there was also a sharp surge in virus cases in the northeast. Connecticut was up 62 percent in the past two weeks, and New York and Pennsylvania were up more than 40 percent.
The Michigan surge wasn’t attributed to an event, but epidemiologists have noted cases increased after the state eased indoor eating restrictions on February 1 and lifted other restrictions in January. Other trouble spots were North Dakota, where cases have increased nearly 60 percent, and Minnesota, where cases have increased 47 percent. Of these states, North Dakota is the only one that does not currently have a mask mandate.
The wave of new cases comes along with some promising news: A C.D.C. The report, released on Monday, confirmed the results of last year’s clinical studies that found vaccines against Covid-19 developed by Moderna and Pfizer were highly effective. The report documents that the vaccines prevent both symptomatic and asymptomatic infections “under real conditions”.
The researchers tracked nearly 4,000 health care workers and key employees as of December. They found 161 infections in the unvaccinated workers, but only three in those who received two doses of the vaccine. The study found that even a single dose two weeks after administration was 80 percent effective against infections. Studies continue to investigate whether people who have been vaccinated can still transmit the virus to others, although many scientists believe it is unlikely.
The vaccination rate continues to increase. The 7-day average of vaccines administered hit 2.76 million on Monday, an increase from the previous week’s pace, according to the C.D.C. Almost 3.3 million people were vaccinated on Sunday alone, said Andy Slavitt, a senior White House pandemic advisor.
Broader authorization pools should further strengthen this. At least three dozen states now allow all adults to register for admissions by mid-April.
Minnesota is open to all adults on Tuesday and Connecticut is open on Thursday. Florida lowered the age of eligibility to 40 years, and Indiana lowered it to 30 years.
At the same time, the waves of Covid have made health authorities increasingly nervous in some states. Similar escalations a few weeks ago in Germany, France and Italy have now turned into major outbreaks, said Dr. Walensky.
“We know travel is on the rise and I’m just worried that we’ll see the waves that we saw again in summer and winter,” she said.
As his presidency enters the third month, Mr Biden is still waging some battles started by his predecessor who turned the wearing of masks into a political statement. As soon as he took office, Mr. Biden used his executive powers to impose masking requirements where he could – on federal properties. And he urged all Americans to “mask” themselves for 100 days.
However, some governors, especially in more conservative states, ignored him. When the governors of Mississippi and Texas announced this month that they would be lifting their mask mandates, Mr. Biden denounced the plans as a “big mistake” reflecting “Neanderthal thinking”.
In Texas, a recent decline in cases may be reversed. Although the Times database shows that coronavirus infections have decreased 17 percent, deaths decreased 34 percent and hospital admissions decreased 25 percent in the past two weeks, the seven-day average of newly reported coronavirus infections rose on Sunday at 3,774. Last Wednesday, the average number of cases was 3,401.
“There’s something particularly difficult about this moment,” said Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, a former senior official in the Food and Drug Administration who now teaches at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. With more Americans vaccinated and the potential to end the pandemic in sight, he said, “It seems like any case is unnecessary.”
Dr. Walensky, who has issued multiple warnings in the past few weeks of the need to maintain mask wear and social distancing, said she plans to speak with governors on Tuesday about the risks of early lifting of restrictions.
“I know you all want so badly to be done,” she said. “We’re almost there, but not quite there yet.”
Eileen Sullivan Contribution to reporting.