Federal Scientists Plead for Pandemic Controls as Infection Declines Stall

WASHINGTON — Federal health officials warned impatient governors on Friday against relaxing pandemic control measures, saying that a recent steep drop in coronavirus cases and deaths in the United States may be leveling off at a very high number — a shift that the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said “must be taken extremely seriously.”

The pleas from the director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, and Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser for the virus, came as the Biden administration scrambled to stay ahead of a possible fourth surge of infections and the spread of worrisome variants, which officials say account for a rising percentage of cases in the country.

Those calls punctuated a fast-paced day of pandemic-related developments around the country. Mr. Biden flew to Houston to showcase the government’s latest mass vaccination site. The Food and Drug Administration neared emergency authorization of a third coronavirus vaccine, this one from Johnson & Johnson. And the White House enlisted business groups to help vaccinate their employees and reach Americans resisting vaccinations.

Behind it all were ominous signs after weeks of positive developments.

“Things are tenuous,” Dr. Walensky said at a White House briefing on the pandemic. “Now is not the time to relax restrictions.”

According to a New York Times database, virus cases across the United States appear to be leveling off from the steep decline that began in January, with figures comparable with those reported in late October. The seven-day average of new cases was 69,450 as of Thursday.

Cases have slightly increased week over week in recent days, though severe weather limited testing and reporting in Texas and other states the previous week, and not all states reported complete data on the Presidents’ Day holiday. Still, the overall numbers remain horrific: More than half a million Americans are now dead of Covid-19, and as of Friday, more than 28 million have been infected.

Yet governors were chafing against coronavirus-related restrictions and itching to take steps to restore a sense of normalcy. In a sign that the partisan divide over the pandemic has not yet abated, Republicans seemed more eager to roll back virus control measures than Democrats, though in New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, has also been easing restrictions on a variety of activities.

“There’s nothing partisan about this virus,” President Biden said, speaking at a mass vaccination site in Houston with Texas’ Republican governor, Greg Abbott, and one of its Republican senators, John Cornyn.

Yet in Texas, Mr. Abbott is considering lifting a statewide mask mandate in place since July.

In South Carolina, which has been struggling with some of the highest infection rates in the country, Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, announced that on Monday, restaurants would once again be able to serve alcohol past 11 p.m. and that residents no longer needed to get approval from the state to hold events with 250 people or more. The move lifts orders imposed by the state last year.

A spokesman for Mr. McMaster, Brian Symmes, said the governor “appreciates perspectives that differ from his own” but “respectfully disagrees” with Dr. Walensky’s assessment.


In Mississippi, Gov. Tate Reeves said Thursday that he was also considering pulling back some restrictions, particularly mask mandates for people who have been fully vaccinated. Both are Republicans.

ImagePresident Biden visiting a vaccination facility in Houston on Friday. The White House enlisted business groups to help vaccinate their employees and reach Americans resisting vaccinations.
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

And in Florida, Republicans who gathered for the first full day of the Conservative Political Action Committee’s annual conference in Orlando mocked coronavirus restrictions. The hosting hotel required attendees to wear masks indoors, but the conference had been underway less than two hours on Friday before the requirement caused a scene.

Shortly after Josh Mandel, an Ohio Republican, closed his speech with chants of “Freedom!” two conference officials walked quietly onstage to pause the event, pleading with the audience to wear their masks. The audience erupted in boos and jeers. Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, then made fun of pandemic rules like wearing masks in restaurants.

Here in Washington, Biden administration officials pleaded with Americans to be patient. Dr. Fauci echoed Dr. Walensky’s warnings that more rollbacks at state or local levels would be unwise, noting that with coronavirus cases still hovering at around 70,000 per day, the country remains in a “very precarious position.”

“We don’t want to be people always looking at the dark side of things, but you want to be realistic,” he said. “So we have to carefully look at what happens over the next week or so with those numbers before you start making the understandable need to relax on certain restrictions.”

While coronavirus deaths tend to fluctuate more than cases and hospital admissions, Dr. Walensky said the most recent seven-day average was slightly higher than the average earlier in the week. The seven-day average of newly reported deaths was 2,165, as of Thursday.

“We at C.D.C. consider this a very concerning shift in the trajectory,” she said, adding, “I want to be clear: Cases, hospital admissions and deaths — all remain very high and the recent shift in the pandemic must be taken extremely seriously.”

Dr. Walensky said some of the rise may be attributable to new variants of the coronavirus that spread more efficiently and quickly. The so-called B.1.1.7 variant, which first emerged in Britain, now accounts for approximately 10 percent of all cases in the United States, up from 1 percent to 4 percent a few weeks ago, she said.

The United States’ ability to track variants is much less robust than Britain’s. Even so, data gathered by the C.D.C. shows the number of cases with the variant in the country has risen from 76 in 12 states as of Jan. 13 to more than 2,100 in 45 states as of Thursday. But the actual infections may be much higher because of inadequate surveillance efforts.

“I know people are tired; they want to get back to life, to normal,” Dr. Walensky said. “But we’re not there yet.”

Dr. Walensky’s strong and vocal warnings made clear that in the Biden administration, unlike the Trump administration, the C.D.C. director was being given a powerful voice. Under President Donald J. Trump, the agency was all but silenced after one of its top officials, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, told reporters almost exactly a year ago that the coronavirus would cause severe disruptions to American life.

At the same time, administration officials tried to spotlight their efforts to guide the nation out of the pandemic, including ramping up the national coronavirus vaccination campaign, acquiring new therapeutics and drawing the private sector into the fight.

In Houston, Mr. Biden echoed the warnings coming from his team. “Cases and hospitalizations could go back up as new variants emerge,” he said, “and it’s not the time to relax.”

About an hour before Mr. Biden was to speak in Houston, a panel of expert advisers to the Food and Drug Administration voted unanimously to give the green light to Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine, clearing the last hurdle before a formal emergency authorization expected on Saturday. The vaccine will join two others, one by Moderna and the other by Pfizer-BioNTech, that are authorized for use in the United States.

But unlike the first two, Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine takes only one dose and has fewer shipping and handling difficulties.

Earlier on Friday, the Biden administration announced it has purchased 100,000 doses of a recently authorized Covid-19 treatment from Eli Lilly, increasing the supply of such drugs for patients who are at high risk of becoming seriously ill but are not yet hospitalized.

The treatment is a cocktail of monoclonal antibodies. The government will pay $210 million for an initial tranche of 100,000 doses, which the company will ship by the end of March. The administration has an option to buy an additional 1.1 million more doses through November if necessary.

Mr. Biden has often compared the fight against the coronavirus to wartime mobilization, but with the exception of pharmaceutical companies, the private sector has done relatively little in the effort. It has not made a major push to persuade Americans to remain socially distant, wear masks or get vaccinated as soon as possible.

The administration said Friday that it was trying to change that by joining with business lobbying groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers and the Business Roundtable, to encourage companies to support workers in getting vaccinated by offering paid time off or benefits.

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Credit…Pete Kiehart for The New York Times

“There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” Neil Bradley, the chief policy officer for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview. “We have to get to that light as quickly as possible, and employers can be a huge asset in getting us there.”

Andy Slavitt, a senior health adviser for the Biden administration, said it was issuing a “call to action” to corporate America to urge businesses to make “unique commitments that bring their unique skills and resources” to fighting the pandemic.

He ticked off a range of ways that the private sector has already become engaged. Ford and the Gap intend to donate more than 100 million masks for free distribution. Uber and Lyft are teaming up with pharmacies to offer free or discounted rides to vaccination sties. Best Buy, Dollar General and Target will give workers paid time off to get a shot.

Mr. Slavitt said the initiatives would be coordinated by the companies themselves and the administration did not have a formal role.

All three of the administration officials — Mr. Slavitt, Dr. Fauci and Dr. Walensky — made clear that vaccination, and doubling down on public health measures that stem the spread of the virus, like wearing masks and social distancing, were the only path out of the pandemic.

“We may be done with the virus,” Dr. Walensky said, “but clearly, the virus is not done with us.”

Reporting was contributed by Gillian Friedman, Remy Tumin and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs in New York, Elaina Plott in Orlando, Eileen Sullivan in Washington, and Mitch Smith in Chicago.

Cases have slightly increased week over week in recent days, though severe weather limited testing and reporting in Texas and other states the previous week, and not all states reported complete data on the Presidents’ Day holiday. Still, the overall numbers remain horrific: More than half a million Americans are now dead of Covid-19, and as of Friday, more than 28 million have been infected.

Yet governors were chafing against coronavirus-related restrictions and itching to take steps to restore a sense of normalcy. In a sign that the partisan divide over the pandemic has not yet abated, Republicans seemed more eager to roll back virus control measures than Democrats, though in New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, has also been easing restrictions on a variety of activities.

“There’s nothing partisan about this virus,” President Biden said, speaking at a mass vaccination site in Houston with Texas’ Republican governor, Greg Abbott, and one of its Republican senators, John Cornyn.

Yet in Texas, Mr. Abbott is considering lifting a statewide mask mandate in place since July.

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