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'Race against the vaccine' as some states see uptick in COVID-19 cases

“There are some states that are pulling back now, I believe more prematurely than they should,“ said Dr. Anthony Fauci.
/ Source: NBC News

COVID-19 rates are trending in the wrong direction in several states, including Michigan, which reported an uptick in new infections over the last month as other states see new cases plateau, prompting warnings about a possible surge.

Health experts say it’s too soon to celebrate victory over the coronavirus pandemic despite an increase in vaccine access and re-openings across the country.

“There are some states that are pulling back now, I believe more prematurely than they should, on public health measures,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said on TODAY. "The very sharp decline that we had, which was really good news, has now over the last few weeks plateaued at around .... 55,000 new cases per day.”

Fauci said “that’s much too high to be declaring victory.”

States where new cases have plateaued or stopped declining include Colorado and Massachusetts.

On Friday, Michigan public health officials added 3,730 new confirmed cases and 15 deaths, bringing the state's total to 622,151 known infections and 15,850 deaths. The number of new cases marks the largest daily increase for the state since January, when nearly every state saw record hospitalizations and deaths from the virus.

Across the country, more than 29 million people have been infected with COVID-19 and at least 541,000 have died, according to NBC News counts.

Friday’s announcement came as the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services expanded capacity at outdoor stadiums and arenas, allowing up to 20 percent capacity at venues with established safety protocols. Michigan also increased weekly testing for youth athletes between the ages of 13 and 19 to safely participate in sports.

"The pandemic has been hard on all of us, but by staying focused on acting quickly, following the science, and listening to experts, we can save lives and help our economy recover faster," Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in a statement. "Today's action is an important step towards normalcy, but there's still more work to do.”

Over the past four weeks, confirmed COVID-19 cases have trended upward for much of the state. According to hospitalization data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about 74% of Michigan's in-patient beds are currently in use, and 72% of the beds in intensive care units are filled.

The percentage of positive tests has also increased over the last four weeks and is now at 6.2%, public health officials said during a Friday news briefing.

“We are back to where we were,” said Dr. Teena Chopra, an infectious disease expert and Wayne State University professor. “This is our third surge. It is a cause for concern for all those places where people have let down their guard.”

On Thursday, Fauci said recent “history has shown” that after a plateau in new cases comes the potential of a big surge, which is what happened recently in Europe.

Italy is once again shutting down while France is closing region by region and Germany is weighing another round of lockdowns. The European Union is also struggling with its COVID-19 vaccine rollout as a number of countries paused distribution of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

In the United States, “it’s really going to be a race against the vaccine and a potential surge,” Fauci said. “The good part of this equation is that every day we’re getting between 2 to 3 million people vaccinated in this country.”

Fauci also warned that some states have loosened their restrictions too soon, adding to national concerns that another surge could be around the corner. Among those states that relaxed restrictions and are now seeing an increase in new cases is Michigan, which is experiencing a 30% increase in new infections over the last week. Michigan now has the country’s 5th highest rate of new COVID-19 cases, health officials said.

The numbers are especially alarming as the number of people being tested for COVID-19 has also stagnated, according to Sarah Lyon-Callo, the director of the Bureau of Epidemiology and Population Health at Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

"We're seeing a very different picture than we did a couple weeks ago," Lyon-Callo said during a weekly news briefing.

She added that "Michigan definitely stands out in terms of having an increase in our hospitalizations and case rates" compared with other Midwestern states.

Michigan had some of the nation’s toughest restrictions in place through much of the pandemic but started to change those mandates in January after seeing a decrease in cases through winter. Restrictions were further loosened in early March, including reopening schools and restaurants.

Whitmer, who was the target of attacks from far-right groups last year, defended her decision to relax COVID-19 safety regulations in an interview with Detroit public radio station WDET.

“We knew that by taking restaurants back online for indoor dining, that we would see enhanced likelihood of spread, despite all the best efforts of many of our restaurateurs,” she said. “That is, of course, the case. We know that re-engaging sports would create the possibility of additional spread; we have seen some of that happen as well.”

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