Caution vs. Optimism
Cases are rising again in the U.S., even as the vaccine campaign accelerates. We explain why.,
The news about the state of the pandemic in the U.S. has been largely positive in the past few months. The vaccines are highly effective, and millions of people are receiving doses each day. Cases, hospitalizations and deaths have fallen sharply from their January peaks.
But infections are rising again. The U.S. has averaged 65,000 new cases a day over the past week — a 19 percent increase from two weeks ago. That puts the country close to last summer’s peak, though still far below January levels.
As those numbers make clear, the pandemic isn’t over yet. And it may get worse in the next few weeks. But there are still strong reasons to be optimistic about Covid’s trajectory in the U.S.
What’s driving cases up?
Several factors are fueling the upturn, Apoorva Mandavilli, a Times science reporter, told us. A more contagious variant (the one first identified in Britain, called B.1.1.7) is spreading. Some mayors and governors have continued to lift restrictions and mask rules. Many Americans are behaving less cautiously. And vaccinations have not gotten the country near herd immunity.
Many experts aren’t surprised. “For literally a month and a half, we’ve all been predicting that the second half of March is when B.1.1.7 would become the dominant variant in the United States,” says Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown School of Public Health. “And sure enough, here we are.”
The increase is not distributed equally. “New York and New Jersey have been bad and are not getting better, and Michigan’s cases are rising at an explosive rate,” Mitch Smith, a Times reporter covering the pandemic, said.
Hospitalizations are also rising rapidly in Michigan, with Jackson, Detroit and Flint among the metro areas experiencing the highest rates of new cases in the country.
The outlook is more encouraging in much of the West and South, though cases have started to tick up in Florida, where officials in Miami Beach instituted a curfew this month to prevent crowds of spring breakers from gathering.
Still, Mitch noted, “compare the country to where we were in January, it’s hands-down way better.”
Short-term worry, longer-term optimism
What happens next? Cases could continue to rise in the coming weeks, Apoorva says. Between vaccinations and prior infections, half the country may have some form of immunity to the virus, according to Jha: “That still leaves a lot of vulnerable people who can get infected.”
But the success of the country’s ongoing vaccination drive should keep deaths and hospitalizations well below their January peaks. Many of the people at the greatest risk of severe illness have already been inoculated, which means new cases are likely to be concentrated among younger and healthier people.
And there are many reasons to expect the state of the pandemic to improve as summer approaches. More and more Americans will get vaccinated. The arrival of warmer weather will let more people spend time outside, where the virus spreads less easily. And cities and states could blunt some new cases by keeping indoor mask mandates.
Caution in the immediate term and hope in the longer term can make for difficult public health messaging. President Biden walked that line this week, celebrating expanded vaccine access while warning that “reckless behavior” could lead to more infections.
The solution, Jha believes, is honesty. “There’s been this debate throughout the whole pandemic: Should we be more optimistic or should we be more pessimistic? My personal strategy has been to just be honest with people,” he says. “Be honest with people and give it to them straight. I think most people can handle it.”
In other virus news:
Researchers in Britain are exploring the possible benefits of pairing doses from different Covid vaccines.
An elite New York City hospital repeatedly billed patients more than $3,000 for a Covid test.
THE LATEST NEWS
The Justice Department is investigating Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida, over whether he had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl. Gaetz denied that he had romantic relationships with minors and said he had no plans to resign.
President Biden announced the nominations of 11 people to serve as federal judges, moving faster than any president in decades to fill open positions in the courts.
Biden is presenting a $2 trillion package of infrastructure spending today. He will propose using revenue from increased corporate taxes to pay for roads, bridges, utilities and other needs.
Dozens of Black business leaders, including the C.E.O. of Merck and the former head of American Express, urged corporations to fight a wave of Republican-backed bills that would limit voting access.
Other Big Stories
On the second day of Derek Chauvin’s trial, six people who were at the scene last year as Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck testified. The teenager who recorded the video at the center of the case said she sometimes lay awake at night, “apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more.” (Here are the takeaways from Day 2.)
Two Capitol Police officers are suing Donald Trump, claiming he is responsible for the physical and emotional injuries they suffered during the Jan 6. riot.
These photos show the conditions in an overcrowded border facility in Donna, Texas, that is housing more than 4,000 migrants.
A January airstrike by the French Army targeting militants killed 19 civilians in Mali, a U.N. report found. The attack intensified calls for about 5,000 French troops stationed there to leave.
G. Gordon Liddy, who concocted the bungled burglary that led to the Watergate scandal and the resignation of Richard Nixon, died. He was 90.
The N.F.L. will add a 17th regular-season game, the first expansion of the league’s schedule since 1978.
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Lives Lived: Alvin Sykes converted to Buddhism in his 20s and led a monk’s life in the name of social justice. Though he was not a lawyer, he devoted himself to prying open long-dormant murder cases from the civil rights era, including that of Emmett Till. Sykes died at 64.
ARTS AND IDEAS
Lil Nas X, digital maestro
Over the past week, the governor of South Dakota, Nike and several right-wing media personalities, among others, have come after the rapper Lil Nas X. Some were critical of his new single “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” and its accompanying hell-themed music video, in which he gives Satan a lap dance. Others were upset with the limited-edition sneakers he collaborated on called Satan Shoes.
That outrage is by design, as The Times’s music critic Jon Caramanica writes. “What ‘Montero’ has caused — or rather, what Lil Nas X has engineered — is a good old-fashioned moral panic,” he writes. “The song, the video, the shoes — they are bait.”
Lil Nas X found major fame in 2019 with his viral hit “Old Town Road.” But what has kept him relevant is the skill set he developed before that, as an ardent Nicki Minaj fan on social media. That experience made him a master at steering online conversations, a talent that translates well to pop stardom.
“He is a grade-A internet manipulator and, provided all the tools and resources typically reserved for long-established pop superstars, he is perfectly suited to dominate the moment,” Caramanica writes. “‘Montero’ may or may not top the Billboard Hot 100 next week, but it will be unrivaled in conversations started.” — Sanam Yar
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P.S. President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run for re-election 53 years ago today, the last time a U.S. president has done so. The Times covered the news with a front-page banner headline.
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Lalena Fisher, Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti and Sanam Yar wrote today’s newsletter. You can reach the team at firstname.lastname@example.org.