MONDAY, May 24, 2021 (HealthDay News) -- Fewer than 30,000 new coronavirus cases are now being reported daily in the United States, with deaths as low as they have been since last June.
Infection and death rates are dropping dramatically as nearly 50 percent of Americans have now received at least one vaccine shot, The New York Times reported.
"I think by June, we're probably going to be at one infection per 100,000 people per day, which is a very low level," Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said Sunday on "Face the Nation." At the moment, that rate is now eight cases per 100,000, down from 22 during the most recent peak in mid-April, the Times reported.
And the number of hospitalized patients has fallen to the lowest point in 11 months, Dr. Eric Topol, of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, told the Times.
The United States is reporting about 25,700 new coronavirus cases daily, a 39 percent decrease from two weeks ago, according to a Times database. Deaths are down 14 percent over the same period, to an average of 578 per day.
The million-dollar question now is whether increasing vaccinations can crush the virus or whether it will simmer in areas with low immunization rates and resurface when colder weather returns, David Rubin, director of PolicyLab at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, which has been modeling the outbreak for more than a year, told the Washington Post.
"If we're continuing to have disease reservoirs and we have areas with low vaccinations, it'll hang on until the fall and start to pick up pace again. It'll find pockets where there are unvaccinated individuals, and have these sporadic outbreaks," Rubin said.
But Dr. Anthony Fauci was optimistic about the country's ability to contain the virus.
"I'm sure that we can control it," Fauci told the Post. "Somewhere between control and elimination is where we're going to wind up. Namely a very, very low level that isn't a public health hazard, that doesn't disrupt society."
But although 39 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated, rates vary widely, with New England leading the way and much of the South lagging behind, the Times reported.
In five of the six New England states, more than 60 percent of residents are at least partly vaccinated, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meanwhile, vaccination rates are all below 40 percent in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee. Mississippi, at 33 percent, is at the bottom of the list, the Times said.
At the same time, testing rates have fallen around the country, fueling concern that cases could be undercounted in places with high positivity rates, like Miami. And the longer it takes to vaccinate people, the longer the virus has to spread, mutate and possibly change enough to evade vaccines.
"My big concern is that there is going to be a variant that's going to outsmart the vaccine," Dr. Thomas LaVeist, dean of Tulane University's School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, told the Times. "Then we'll have a new problem. We'll have to revaccinate."
Approved vaccines show 'response' against all COVID variants
Vaccines approved for use in the United States and Europe show protection against all of the more infectious coronavirus variants known to be circling the globe, the World Health Organization said last week.
"All COVID-19 virus variants can be controlled in the same way, with public health and social measures," European Regional Director Hans Kluge said during a media briefing, CBS News reported. "All COVID-19 virus variants that have emerged so far do respond to the available approved vaccines."
Since January, four variants of concern, including the one bringing India to its knees at the moment, have been monitored by health officials around the world, Kluge said. Known as B.1.617, the Indian variant has been detected in 44 different countries, according to a recent weekly epidemiological update from the WHO, CBS News reported.
"For the time being, we can say that all the four variants do respond to the vaccines made available, as of today," Kluge said. "But the best way to counteract is to speed up the vaccination rollout."
Unknown variants of the virus could still emerge and be resistant to existing vaccines, scientists at Johns Hopkins Medicine said. And experts noted that variant B.1.351, which first emerged in South Africa, might be resistant to some vaccines in development and that mutations like it are still being studied, CBS News reported.
Luckily, early trial results have shown that the Moderna vaccine provides increased immunity against variants of the virus found in South Africa and Brazil. And Pfizer's original vaccine has been shown to work against the variant first spotted in the United Kingdom, CBS News reported.
Should existing vaccines fail to protect against any emerging variants in the future, the WHO stated that "it will be possible to change the composition of the vaccines to protect against these variants."
In the meantime, the news that the vaccines are still working comes as countries around the world start to ease some of the social distancing measures that have been in place for over a year.
Throughout America, states have lifted or eased mask mandates following new guidance from the CDC that says fully vaccinated people no longer have to wear them in many instances.
But Kluge noted that "there is no such thing as zero risk" and warned people to remain cautious.
"Vaccines may be a light at the end of the tunnel but you cannot be blinded by that light," Kluge said. "We have been here before. Let us not make the same mistakes that were made this time last year that resulted in the resurgence of COVID-19."
Booster shot likely needed for vaccinated: Fauci
Fully vaccinated people will likely need a COVID-19 booster shot within about a year, the nation's top infectious diseases expert and Pfizer's CEO said last week.
"We know that the vaccine durability of the efficacy lasts at least six months, and likely considerably more, but I think we will almost certainly require a booster sometime within a year or so after getting the primary," Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN.
Fauci also said that variant-specific booster shots may not be needed.
"Instead of having to play whack-a-mole with each individual variant and develop a booster that's variant-specific, it is likely that you could just keep boosting against the wild type, and wind up getting a good enough response that you wouldn't have to worry about the variants," he said. The wild type is the original strain of the virus.
Meanwhile, trials of a Pfizer booster vaccine are ongoing, company CEO Albert Bourla said.
"I believe in one, two months we will have enough data to speak about it with much higher scientific certainty," he told CNN.
"If they got their second shot eight months ago, they may need a third one," Bourla said, adding that booster shots could be coming between September and October of this year.
He said Pfizer will have to see what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves, and what its recommendation will be on how best to protect the American people.
Moderna has also been working on a booster shot -- a half dose of its vaccine -- to fight COVID-19 variants like B.1.351, first seen in South Africa, and P.1, first discovered in Brazil, CNN reported.
In the United States, the vaccination picture is improving by the day. Biden has said there will be enough vaccine supply for every American adult by the end of this month. As of Monday, 130 million Americans were fully vaccinated and over 58 percent of adults had received at least one dose, according to the CDC. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also recently approved the Pfizer vaccine for adolescents ages 12 to 15.
As of Monday, the U.S. coronavirus case count passed 33.1 million, while the death toll neared 590,000, according to a tally from Johns Hopkins University. Worldwide, nearly 167.2 million cases had been reported by Monday, with nearly 3.4 million people dead from COVID-19.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on the new coronavirus.
SOURCES: The New York Times; Washington Post; CNN; CBS News