Americans are an optimistic lot, which is a positive trait. As policymakers navigate what will hopefully be the final chapter of the COVID-19 pandemic there are reasons to be optimistic. There’s now a powerful tool at the nation’s disposal – vaccines – to help steer it in the right direction. After a bumpy rollout, the vaccination rate has steadily increased over time.
Further fueling the country’s optimism is the fact that COVID-19 indicators have improved nationwide for five straight weeks.
But, in response, the majority of state governors – who in the U.S. federalist system ultimately matter the most in terms of setting COVID-19 mitigation policy – are throwing caution to the wind. One by one states are removing restrictions. Some are loosening the reins incrementally, by altering capacity limits, for example, in indoor businesses. Others, however, are going much further by eliminating indoor capacity limits altogether – even with respect to venues for (sports) events and dining – and abolishing mask mandates.
Conspicuously, while the U.S. is in open up mode – in some states at full throttle – most of Europe continues to enforce strict mitigation measures, firmly resisting the notion that now is the time to let up.
Both the U.S. and Europe are faced with a similar set of problems. They’re still contending with a major pandemic, the need to vaccinate as efficiently as possible, and the great unknown of potentially dangerous variants that could complicate matters.
Yet, the policies to counter the spread of the coronavirus are, for all intents and purposes, diametrically opposed at this point. State governors appear to be forgetting that, according to most public health experts, now is the wrong time to further relax COVID-19 restrictions. Rather, a concurrent, dual strategy of strong mitigation and rapid vaccination seems more appropriate.
Improvement in COVID-19 indicators notwithstanding, the problem with lack of mitigation is underscored by the fact that cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are all still at elevated levels higher than previous peaks.
And while it’s too early to be definitive, it appears that a rebound in COVID-19 cases may be taking place in the Great Plains. What’s unsettling about the news is that this is the area that sparked the most recent and by far deadliest surge across the country.
Vaccinations and natural immunity acquired from past infections will likely stem a major, nationwide resurgence in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths this time around. But caution is warranted, in light of the emergence of new variants, vaccine hesitancy – particularly among some of the most vulnerable sub-populations – and the potential for reinfections as immunity wanes or as a result of mutations in the novel coronavirus. Defending against the surging B.1.1.7 is one thing, dealing with other, perhaps more worrisome variants, against which the vaccines may be less protective, is a whole other ballgame. This includes the P.1 and the 501Y.V2 variants.
Across Europe, the B.1.1.7 variant is becoming increasingly dominant. In spite of sharply falling case numbers in January in most European countries due to strict lockdowns, the hospitalization (and ICU usage) curve didn’t slope downward as much. Of course, there is a lag between new daily case decreases and a reduction in hospitalizations. But, the drop in hospitalizations has been less steep than the decline in cases for more than six weeks. It’s unknown why this is. Perhaps it’s due to the B.1.1.7’s increased severity.
A case in point is the situation in the Netherlands. After a steady drop in January in new daily cases, hospitalizations (and ICU usage) decreased, but not by nearly as much. In addition, this month we observe plateauing in all three indicators in the Netherlands. Moreover, the plateau is not even close to the low level it was at in the late spring of 2020. In fact, for all three COVID-19 indicators it’s 20 to 30 times as high.
The figures below are from the Dutch equivalent of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – the RIVM. The first graph shows new daily cases from the first of November 2020 until the present. The graph indicates that numbers of cases bottomed out about 10 days ago after a 65% drop, and are currently increasing slightly. The second graph shows that after decreasing by 30% in January and early February hospitalizations and ICU usage are now relatively flat. Similarly, the third graph shows how daily recorded deaths, after diminishing in January by approximately 38%, have plateaued for the past few weeks.
Based on the most recent data, Prime Minister Rutte announced on Thursday, February 18th, that it’s very unlikely tight COVID-19 restrictions would be lifted in early March. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been similarly reluctant to ease the U.K.’s mitigation measures.
Bear in mind that when the COVID-19 pandemic first unfolded Rutte and Johnson were among those most opposed to taking strong action. Both leaders were even drawn to the herd immunity concept. What a difference a year makes.
To end the pandemic as efficiently as possible requires the simultaneous pursuit of vaccination and mitigation. But, this two-pronged strategy is not happening in many parts of the U.S., with many states almost exclusively relying on vaccines to do the job. And it’s not a political thing. Red and blue states are susceptible to the belief that now that there are vaccines there’s much less need to mitigate. In view of the uncertainty surrounding the path the pandemic will take in the short term, U.S. policymakers may want to look to Europe for lessons on how to follow a more cautious, prudent approach.