The top infectious disease expert in the US, Dr Anthony Fauci, has warned it is too early to end Covid-19 restrictions, despite Texas and Mississippi having lifted mask mandates and business capacity limits this week.
States are easing restrictions after a drop in cases, though that decline is starting to plateau at a high rate of 60,000 to 70,000 infections per day.
“We’re going in the right direction but we just need to hang on a bit longer,” Fauci said on Sunday, to CBS’s Face the Nation.
Public health experts have warned that the US could undermine vaccine-related progress and allow for thousands of preventable deaths by lifting restrictions at the first sign of improvements. More than 524,000 people have died from Covid-19 in the US and January was its deadliest month of the pandemic so far.
Fauci, chief medical adviser to Joe Biden, said turning restrictions “on and off” risked another surge.
“This is not going to be indefinite. We need to gradually pull back as we get people vaccinated,” he said.
Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist who advised Biden’s transition team, warned the US was still “in the eye of the hurricane”.
Osterholm told NBC’s Meet the Press the situation appeared to be improving, but said he was concerned the B117 variant, which is 50% more infectious than other variants in the US, could create a new surge.
“We do have to keep America as safe as we can from this virus by not letting up on any of the public health measures we’ve taken and we need to get people vaccinated as quickly as we can,” said Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
On CNN’s State of the Union, the Mississippi governor, Tate Reeves, said he had lifted restrictions in his state because of declining rates of hospitalizations.
“Our objective in Mississippi has never been to rid ourselves of the virus … our goal is to make sure we protect the integrity of our healthcare system,” the Republican said.
Mississippi has seen an average of 461 cases per day, down 17% from the average two weeks ago, according to the New York Times. There were 1,240 deaths from Covid-19 in the state in January, the highest of any month since the pandemic began. About 16% of residents have received a first vaccine dose.
“The numbers in Mississippi don’t justify government intervention,” said Reeves, who encouraged residents to keep wearing masks in crowded settings.
Other governors have celebrated their state’s mask mandates and said they will remain in place until there is a substantial improvement in infection rates.
Mike DeWine of Ohio, a Republican, told ABC’s This Week his state’s mask order was followed by a “significant drop in cases”.
“We’ve seen it throughout this last year – these masks really, really work,” DeWine said.
He said his state would drop health orders once it had 50 cases or fewer per 100,000 people for two weeks. Though rates were still high in Ohio, he said, the state’s vaccination distribution was getting better each day.
“But as we’re doing that, we can’t give up the defense,” DeWine said.
The dean of Brown University’s school of public health, Ashish Jha, said decisions such as those by Reeves and Texas’s governor, Greg Abbott, to lift restrictions could slow the process of getting life back to normal and put residents at risk of infection and death.
“Given how close we are to the finish line, anybody who gets infected today and dies in three or four weeks is somebody who would have gotten vaccinated a month from now,” Jha told ABC. “This is why it’s urgent to just keep going for a little bit longer.”
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