- The Washington Times - Friday, February 26, 2021

The Biden administration sounded the alarm Friday over a “very concerning shift” in the coronavirus pandemic in recent days, as case counts plateau instead of fall and estimates show the “U.K.” variant accounts for 10% of reported U.S. infections.

The rolling average of daily coronavirus cases had been plummeting after a holiday spike — from 250,000 or so in early January to about 66,000 at the start of this week. Deaths also declined from about 3,000 per day at the start of the year to 2,000 per day.

“The latest data suggest that these declines may be stalling,”  Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Friday.

The rolling average of daily cases ticked up to about 69,000 over the past week, so officials are watching to see if it is a reporting blip or the early effects of fast-moving variants that could become dominant in the U.S.

“We are watching these concerning data very closely to see where they go over the next few days,” Dr. Walenksy said.

Hospitalizations are down to about 50,000 instead of 130,000 at the January peak. But levels of transmission remain dangerously high as a general matter, with case counts akin to the summer surge in the South and West.

“Things are tenuous. Now is not the time to relax restrictions,” Dr. Walensky said. “Cases, hospital admissions and deaths all remain very high and the recent shift in the pandemic must be taken very seriously.”

“We may be done with the virus,” she said, “but clearly the virus is not done with us.”

U.S. officials said they understand the temptation to ease restrictions — governors in Iowa and Montana lifted state mask mandates, while others are easing indoor dining restrictions — but they’re fearful that people will take their foot off the gas too early.

“If we plateau at 70,000, we are at that very precarious position we were right [in] before the fall surge. Anything that could perturb that could give us another surge,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “We don’t always want people looking at the dark side of things but you want to be realistic.”

Many parts of the U.S. are dealing with economically damaging restrictions even as the vaccine gradually reaches a greater share of the population, giving hope the virus could be wrangled to manageable levels this year.

An advisory panel to the Food and Drug Administration is meeting Friday to discuss the one-shot vaccine from Johnson & Johnson.

Their endorsement would pave the way for emergency approval by the weekend, giving the U.S. a third weapon in the vaccine fight alongside messenger-RNA shots from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.

Also Friday, the administration said it will open two federally supported mass-vaccination centers on March 10. One in Chicago will vaccinate up to 6,000 people per day and one in Greensboro, North Carolina, will vaccinate up to 3,000 per day.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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