The U.S. is headed closer to a point when the coronavirus pandemic is no longer a crisis, White House officials told reporters, but rather a situation that can be protected against and treated.
“Our highest, first priority is fighting omicron,” White House pandemic response coordinator Jeff Zients told reporters at a briefing. “At the same time, we are preparing for the future.”
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said her agency is preparing new guidance, including on face masks, and will base decisions on hospital capacity.
“We must consider hospital capacity as an additional important barometer,” she said. “Our hospitals need to be able to take care of people with heart attacks and strokes. Our emergency departments can’t be so overwhelmed that patients with [patients experiencing] emergent issues have to wait in line.”
The CDC wants “to give people a break from things like mask wearing, when these metrics are better, and then have the ability to reach for them again should things worsen,” she added.
For now, however, “it’s also important to remember, regardless of the level of disease burden in your community, there are still very important times to continue to wear your mask.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, told Reuters it’s time for the U.S. to start inching back toward normal life, although he also cautioned against moving too fast.
“You don’t want to be reckless and throw everything aside, but you’ve got to start inching towards that,” he said in an interview.
Fauci acknowledged that daily death counts remain high — at about 2,317, according to a New York Times tracker, down 13% from two weeks ago. Cases are averaging 124,324 a day, down 68% from two weeks ago, and hospitalizations are averaging 81,822 a day, down 39% from two weeks ago.
West Virginia, Alabama and Kentucky currently have the highest numbers of recent hospitalizations, the tracker shows. Those three states also have vaccination rates that lag the national average.
The omicron variant has proved resistant to vaccines and caused many breakthrough cases, including in people who have had a booster shot. But those cases have mostly been mild or asymptomatic, showing that vaccines provide a high level of protection against severe disease and death.
Unvaccinated people account for most of the hospitalizations and deaths at present, meaning it is important for that group to get their shots and avoid dying a preventable death.
Other COVID-19 news you should know about:
• Ottawa police trying to break the nearly three-week siege of the capital by truckers protesting Canada’s COVID-19 restrictions began warning Wednesday drivers to leave immediately or risk arrest, the Associated Press reported. As tensions there rose, protesters at the last remaining truck blockade along the U.S. border — at Emerson, Manitoba — moved out, and authorities reopened the crossing into North Dakota, police said.
• Hospitals in Hong Kong are struggling to keep up with an influx of new coronavirus patients amid record numbers of new infections as the city doggedly adheres to its “zero-COVID” strategy, and China’s leader Xi Jinping said the local government’s “overriding task” was to control the situation, the AP reported separately. Hong Kong is facing its worst outbreak of the pandemic, topping 2,000 new COVID-19 cases each day this week. The city government has already instituted strict rules banning gatherings of more than two households.
•Japan is easing border restrictions for people with visas, including foreign students and business travelers, starting March as part of an exit strategy of the sixth wave, the Japan Times reported. For now, it is not allowing tourists to visit. “We are gradually walking toward the exit of the sixth wave,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters. “We need to start preparing for the next phase, in stages.”
• The world is becoming “better prepared” to deal with future variants of the coronavirus, the CEO and co-founder of German vaccine-maker BioNTech told AFP Thursday, as the company BNTX, -1.36% works on an Omicron-specific shot. “We will have to get used to the fact that we will have to live with the virus for the next 10 years,” said Ugur Sahin, whose company developed the first mRNA vaccine against the virus with Pfizer PFE, -0.53%.
Here’s what the numbers say
The global tally of confirmed cases of COVID-19 rose above 418.3 million on Thursday, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University, while the death toll climbed above 5.85 million.
The U.S. leads the world with 78.2 million cases and 928,548 deaths.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s tracker shows that 214.2 million people living in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, equal to 64.5% of the population. But just 92 million are boosted, equal to 43% of the vaccinated population.