Thursday Reads: Are We Headed for a Fourth Wave?

Ole Ring, Danish painter, 1902-1972, natural landscape,

Ole Ring, Danish painter, 1902-1972, natural landscape,

Good Morning!!

I’m going to focus on Covid-19 news today, because–despite the fact that 110 million Americans have been vaccinated–it looks like we are headed into a dangerous surge of new cases. Here’s the latest:

CNN: Fauci says new Covid-19 cases are at a disturbing level as the US is primed for a surge.

The number of new Covid-19 cases has plateaued at a “disturbingly high level,” and the US is at risk from a new surge, Dr. Anthony Fauci warned on Wednesday.

While lower than the peak earlier this year, there were still more than 61,000 new cases reported on Wednesday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. And the lack of continued significant decreases in infections is a concern, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told CNN’s Anderson Cooper, particularly given the spread of variants.

“It’s almost a race between getting people vaccinated and this surge that seems to want to increase,” Fauci said, noting Europe is experiencing a spike much like the one experts worry about for the US.

The US is vaccinating people quickly, with just over 33% of the population — more than 109 million people — having received at least one dose of the vaccine and all 50 states committed to opening vaccinations to all adults by April 19.

Those vaccines may be behind the decrease in Covid-19 fatalities, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday.

This is also concerning: Walensky says that the British variant of the virus is now causing most U.S. cases.

The New York Times: More Contagious Virus Variant Is Now Dominant in U.S., C.D.C. Chief Says.

A highly infectious variant of the coronavirus that was first identified in Britain has become the most common source of new infections in the United States, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Wednesday. The worrisome development comes as officials and scientists warn of a possible fourth surge of infections.

Suzanne Valadon, Sous-Bois, 1914

Suzanne Valadon, Sous Bois, 1914

Federal health officials said in January that the B.1.1.7 variant, which began surging in Britain in December and has since slammed Europe, could become the dominant source of coronavirus infections in the United States, leading to a huge increase in cases and deaths.

At that point, new cases, hospitalizations and deaths were at an all-time high. From that peak, the numbers all declined until late February, according to a New York Times database. After several weeks at a plateau, new cases and hospitalizations are increasing again. The average number of new cases in the country has reached nearly 65,000 a day as of Tuesday, concentrated mostly in metro areas in Michigan as well as in the New York City region. That is an increase of 19 percent compared with the figure two weeks ago.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the C.D.C. director, who warned last week that she felt a recurring sense of “impending doom,” said on Wednesday that 52 of the agency’s 64 jurisdictions — which include states, some major cities and territories — are now reporting cases of these so-called “variants of concern,” including B.1.1.7.

More on the British variant:

B.1.1.7, the first variant to come to widespread attention, is about 60 percent more contagious and 67 percent more deadly than the original form of the coronavirus, according to the most recent estimates. The C.D.C. has also been tracking the spread of other variants, such as B.1.351, first found in South Africa, and P.1, which was first identified in Brazil.

The percentage of cases caused by variants is clearly increasing. Helix, a lab testing company, has tracked the relentless increase of B.1.1.7 since the beginning of the year. As of April 3, it estimated that the variant made up 58.9 percent of all new tests.

That variant has been found to be most prevalent in Michigan, Florida, Colorado, California, Minnesota and Massachusetts, according to the C.D.C. Until recently, the variant’s rise was somewhat camouflaged by falling infection rates over all, leading some political leaders to relax restrictions on indoor dining, social distancing and other measures.

Doctors and hospitals are seeing more infections in young people. 

CNN: Youth sports and other extracurriculars are spreading Covid-19, health officials say.

After-school activities are creating clusters where coronavirus can spread among children, said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Peder Mørk Mønsted, Danish, View of Fredensborg, 1893

Peder Mørk Mønsted, Danish, View of Fredensborg, 1893

“We know that these increases are due, in part, to more highly transmissible variants, which we are very closely monitoring,” Walensky said Monday at the White House COVID-19 Response Team briefing.

The virus was linked to high school wrestling tournaments in Florida last December where 38 people tested positive, according to a CDC report published in January.

In Minnesota, the B.1.1.7 variant of SARS-CoV-2 spread through Carver County with at least 68 cases linked to youth sport activities including hockey, wrestling and basketball, according to the Minnesota Department of Health….

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned about the spread of Covid-19 among children who participate in youth sports.

“We’re finding out that it’s the team sports where kids are getting together, obviously many without masks, that are driving it, rather than in the classroom spread,” Fauci told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos Tuesday on “Good Morning America.” “When you go back and take a look and try and track where these clusters of cases are coming from in the school, it’s just that.

The New York Times: Is the U.S. heading for a new wave? The Upper Midwest may offer a hint.

As states lift restrictions and coronavirus variants spread, scientists and federal health officials have warned that a fourth surge of cases could arise in the United States even as the nation’s vaccination campaign gathers speed. The seeds of such a surge may now be sprouting in the Upper Midwest and the Northeast.

Michigan is in tough shape. New cases and hospitalizations there have more than doubled in the last two weeks, and the six metro areas in the United States with the greatest number of new cases relative to their population are all in Michigan.

Several other states in the Upper Midwest, including Minnesota and Illinois, have also reported significant increases in new cases and hospitalizations. And in the Northeast, New York and New Jersey have continued to see elevated case counts.

Illinois is seeing a spike in cases as well. The daily average for new cases there has jumped about 56 percent in the past two weeks, to about 2,832 a day. Hospitalizations have risen about 28 percent from two weeks ago. Wisconsin and North Dakota have also seen their average case counts jump 50 percent or more in the last two weeks.

Stat reports that Biden has so far declined to increase the number of vaccine doses available to Michigan, despite the precipitous rise in cases: Biden officials rebuff appeals to surge Covid-19 vaccine to Michigan amid growing crisis.

Amid Michigan’s worst-in-the-nation coronavirus surge, scientists and public health officials are urging the Biden administration to flood the state with additional vaccine doses.

Henri Lebasque, Summer Woman

Henri Lebasque, Summer Woman

So far, though, their plea has fallen on deaf ears. Instead, the federal government is sticking to a vaccine-allocation strategy that largely awards doses to states and territories based on their population. As a result, most jurisdictions are still receiving similar per-capita vaccine supplies, regardless of how many people there are getting sick — or how many excess vaccine doses they have. 

Experts have cast a surge in Michigan’s vaccine supply as a critical tool in combating the state’s most recent Covid-19 crisis. The state is currently recording nearly 7,000 new cases per day, just shy of its all-time peak in December. Hospitalizations and deaths, which tend to lag a few weeks behind increasing case counts, are also on the rise. 

“I would be surging a lot of vaccines to Michigan right now,” said Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. “To me, this is a no-brainer policy, and I would be curious to hear why the Biden team hasn’t done this.” 

During a media briefing on Wednesday, White House officials acknowledged that Michigan’s situation is dire. They gave no indication, though, that they would send additional vaccines there to help quell the surge, when STAT asked. They argued that it is too early in the national vaccine campaign to begin targeting supply based on case rates. 

Read more at Stat.

From An Diamond and Fenit Nirappil at The Washington Post: ‘A moment of peril’: Biden sees infections climb on his watch.

More than 100 million Americans have gotten at least one shot of vaccine and more than 200 million doses have been sent to states, a dramatic acceleration of the bumpy vaccine operation it inherited. Virus-related cases and deaths, which peaked in January, have fallen by about two-thirds since President Biden’s inauguration.

Gustave Léonard de Jonghe

Gustave Léonard de Jonghe

But the Biden White House is seeing new infections climb on its own watch — a potential crisis that could erase many of the hard-won gains of the president’s first 75 days, should the numbers keep rising. After railing for a year about the last administration’s response and vowing a more muscular strategy, Biden is encountering the limits of his own authority. The president can help secure and distribute supplies and medicines, issue guidance and urge caution — but like President Donald Trump before him, he has few tools when governors decide to lift coronavirus protections at the wrong moment, manufacturers botch vaccine production, or Americans refuse to wear masks or get vaccinated.

“We need you to spread the word,” Biden told faith leaders last week, saying he was worried about Americans becoming “cavalier” about the virus. “They’re going to listen to your words more than they are me as president of the United States.”

Biden also has no more sway than Trump over a mutating virus that scientists have only begun to understand. The Washington Post’s rolling seven-day national average of coronavirus cases is more than 65,000 new cases per day, an 19 percent uptick since the middle of last month, even as many states drop public health restrictions and new variants spread. More than 146,000 new cases were reported on Thursday and Friday, the highest two-day count in several weeks, according to state data tracked by The Post.

David Axe at The Daily Beast: There’s One Truly Alarming Reason to Worry About the Latest COVID Surge—Even With Vaccines.

…the [current] surge—driven by the spread of dangerous new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and a reckless rush by governors and mayors to end a year of mask mandates and social distancing rules—isn’t just an immediate threat to unvaccinated people.

It also represents a long-term danger to the whole country. More cases mean more opportunities for the novel coronavirus to mutate. And the more the pathogen mutates, the greater the chance it will evolve into an even deadlier variant—“lineage” is the scientific term—than even the ones we’re dealing with now.

It’s even possible that, given time and a certain critical mass of cases, SARS-CoV-2 could mutate into a lineage that can overpower our vaccines.

Nicolaas van der Waay

Nicolaas van der Waay

That’s the worst-case scenario—and potentially the biggest cause for concern as the spring surge spreads across the United States. “The greater the spread of the virus populations to new individuals, because of relaxation of social measures, the more the chances of new mutations,” Edwin Michael, an epidemiologist at the Center for Global Health Infectious Disease Research at the University of South Florida, told The Daily Beast.

If all this sounds like conjecture—it’s not. The steady mutation of the novel coronavirus over the 16 months since it first took root in China is a big reason America’s experiencing another surge.

Any given patient’s load of the virus mutates every two weeks, on average. Niema Moshiri, a geneticist at the University of California-San Diego, compared each case to a slot machine that an infection pulls twice a month. Jackpot is a new and deadlier lineage.

Now imagine tens of millions of Americans with active COVID infections, with each case pulling that handle every 14 days. The more gamblers, and the more time they have to gamble, the better chances of a big win for SARS-CoV-2. Our goal, Moshiri said, should be “to lessen the number of parallel slot machines we give to the virus.”

A few more related stories to check out:

USA Today: Colorado vaccination site shuts down after 11 ‘adverse reactions’ to Johnson & Johnson jabs: Latest COVID-19 updates.

The New York Times: Top Official Warned That Covid Vaccine Plant Had to Be ‘Monitored Closely.’  “An Operation Warp Speed report last June flagged staffing and quality control concerns at Emergent BioSolutions’ factory in Baltimore. The troubled plant recently had to throw out up to 15 million doses.”

David Corn at Mother Jones: Will the Public Ever Get a Full Accounting of Trump’s Disastrous COVID Response?

What else is happening? As always, this is an open thread.