EMS medics with the Houston Fire Department move a patient with Covid-19 symptoms onto a stretcher before transporting him to a hospital on August 14, 2020 in Houston, Texas.
John Moore | Getty Images
White House coronavirus advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci warned members of Congress in late June that the U.S. might report more than 100,000 daily new cases of the virus “if this does not turn around.”
But months later, Fauci’s worst fears have not come to pass as daily new cases have steadily fallen across much of the U.S. While testing has declined in recent weeks, the number of new cases is falling faster than testing rates, indicating that at least some of the drop is real.
Epidemiologists credit a more unified health message in the U.S. that has more people following social distancing rules. They also say that keeping some businesses closed has helped slow the outbreak. And President Donald Trump started endorsing masks in late July, bringing the White House in line with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention after months of resistance.
The number of daily new cases in the U.S. peaked on July 22 at about 70,000 new infections and have steadily fallen to about 42,600 per day, based on a seven-day average, according to a CNBC analysis of data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The percent of all tests coming back positive has also steadily fallen, from a high of 8.5% in late July to 6.2% this week, according to Hopkins data. That, along with the four weeks of sustained decline and the falling number of Covid-19 hospitalizations, has epidemiologists feeling more confident that the U.S. is finally getting a grip on its outbreak.
“The current plan — wearing a mask, watching your distance, washing your hands, supplemented by smart testing, according to the state plans, surge testing and extreme technical assistance by CDC as well as our craft teams — continues to yield results,” Assistant Secretary for Health Adm. Brett Giroir told reporters on a conference call last week.
But the country remains in a delicate spot, according to epidemiologists from some of the hardest-hit states in the country — Florida, Texas and Arizona. While new cases are falling by at least 5% in 31 states, they are still rising by at least as much in more than a dozen states, based on a seven-day average, according to Hopkins data.
In Texas, new cases are down from an average of about 10,400 on July 22 to about 5,500. While irregularities in the state data led some local health officials and epidemiologists to question the data, Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston, said the state data is “with a grain of salt, looking good.”
She added that the Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s July 2 mask mandate “certainly” helped reduce the spread as well as the closing of bars, “because we know that those were spreading infection.” Triosi, however, said that as the number of new cases continues to drop and as society reopens that people may experience “pandemic fatigue” and begin to disregard some guidelines.
“What we’re really concerned about are schools opening, Labor Day weekend and pandemic fatigue,” she said. “We were all tired of this five months ago. Now we’re really tired, so if people see the number of cases come down, they might think it’s OK to do things that are a little bit riskier.”
“I would not be surprised if we see an uptick after Labor Day,” she added.
In Florida, the daily average number of new cases has fallen from about 11,100 on July 22 to about 3,900 this week. Cindy Prins, an epidemiologist at the University of Florida, attributed much of the drop to changing behavior across the state, prompted by news coverage and effective public health messaging.
“I think it kind of got to people that opening up didn’t mean going back to normal,” she said. “I think it got very much in the public eye that we weren’t where we needed to be and that we had to take better control.”
Prins echoed Troisi’s concern that as new cases continue to fall, people might get comfortable and ease up on their commitment to the public health guidance.
“My concern is that we’ll have people kind of falling away from this perception of threat as our cases decline and that we could wind up with a little bit of a roller coaster,” she said.
However, she added that Florida and many other Sun Belt states hit hard by the virus this summer have an advantage over the northern parts of the country: comparatively warmer weather. Various studies have shown that the virus spreads more easily in crowded, indoor, poorly ventilated environments. Officials, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, have warned that colder weather could present a new challenge as outdoor dining and gatherings become more difficult.
Arizona has reported an average of about 650 new cases per day over the past week, down from about 2,750 on July 22, according to Hopkins data. Will Humble,…