For the first time in a long while, there appears to be some hope on the horizon, even as the U.S. official death count flies past 400,000. The winter peak of the pandemic is finally turning downward, as daily new cases and total hospitalizations continue to slowly decline. Unfortunately, we’re still very much in the thick of it, and daily deaths are likely to remain high for weeks to come.
On Thursday, according to the COVID Tracking Project, the U.S. saw approximately 185,000 new reported cases, while there are currently 119,927 people hospitalized with the viral illness. Both numbers are a step down from last week’s figures, and the weekly average for cases and hospitalizations has decreased since last week as well. Indeed, average weekly hospitalizations dropped for the first time in 16 weeks.
The situation is still dire, of course. On Wednesday, the project reported around 4,400 deaths—their highest recorded daily death toll yet. But reported deaths are known to lag behind cases and hospitalizations, with the latter two being considered better indicators of the pandemic’s current spread.
“Despite the alarmingly high death numbers, there are encouraging trends in covid-19 case and hospitalization data,” the project’s authors tweeted Thursday.
Enough can’t be said about how bad things still are. The current hospitalizations and new cases reported yesterday are far above the numbers seen during the earlier peaks last spring and summer (though, making any solid comparisons to the spring peak is harder, since testing was much less available back then). Because cases and hospitalizations remain so high, there will be many people who continue to die from covid-19 even as the pandemic may be slowing down. On Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released their latest forecasts for the pandemic, estimating that up to 100,000 more Americans could die in the next four weeks.
New variants of the coronavirus could further complicate our road to recovery. Countries such as the UK and Portugal have experienced recent surges in cases that are believed to be tied to the emergence of these more transmissible strains, and experts expect that the UK variant will become dominant in the U.S. by March if nothing changes.
On Thursday, the new Biden administration released a 200-page plan for tackling the covid-19 pandemic. Among other priorities, it calls for a ramp-up in the production of vaccine doses, tests, and personal protective equipment—all measures that public health experts have said are necessary to get us through this as quickly as possible.
As hopeful as these latest developments are, there are many complications that could arise in the weeks and months to come, including local vaccine shortages. Things might be starting to get better, but the end of the covid-19 pandemic is likely to be a bumpy one.