With more than 113 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines administered in the US and almost 40 million Americans fully vaccinated, do we need to batten down the hatches again? CNN says yes this morning, on the basis of advice from the former head of Planned Parenthood and rising reports of cases from some states. Just how serious is this threat, and which scofflaw states have created the conditions for another American surge?
You’ll be surprised — especially since the names “Texas” and “Florida” are not among the usual suspects. In fact, CNN never mentions Texas at all, and for good reason:
“I think we are going to see a surge in the number of infections,” emergency physician Dr. Leana Wen told CNN on Wednesday night. “I think what helps this time though is that the most vulnerable — particularly nursing home residents, people who are older — are now vaccinated. And so we may prevent a spike in hospitalizations and deaths.”
The first warning sign came when case numbers, after weeks of steep declines, appeared to level off — with the country still averaging tens of thousands of new cases daily. That kind of plateau previously predicted surges, some experts have said.
But governors cited fewer Covid-19 cases and more vaccinations while lifting measures aimed at curbing the spread of the virus.
Let’s recall that Dr. Wen is not an epidemiologist. She’s a board-certified emergency physician, who works at CNN as an analyst, and whose most prominent positions consist of her presidency at Planned Parenthood and her time as a health commissioner in Baltimore. Dr. Wen is an intelligent physician, but epidemiology is not her specialty, so her predictions on pandemics tilts more toward informed punditry than it does expert testimony.
That doesn’t mean Dr. Wen is wrong, but it does mean we should check the data. And the data doesn’t give any indication of a national surge. In fact, the CDC’s national data — readily available to anyone — indicates the opposite:
The blue lines are the raw number of daily cases, while the red line is the 7-day rolling average of the data in the blue lines. After the massive holiday/winter spike, the number of cases have dropped dramatically. With the exception of a single-day spike in reported cases, the average has consistently trended downward all year, even over the last month as the rate of decline has slowed somewhat. However, that would be expected after the massive holiday-travel spike put human behavior on a more normal footing.
Furthermore, even the big spike upward in states with loosened restrictions require some context. CNN notes that Michigan is the worst of the states with a 50% increase of cases, adding in Alabama, West Virginia, and adding a mention of Florida as a potential problem with spring break coming. Let’s take a look at the CDC’s trend lines for those states’ seven-day averages to get the full context, adding in Texas and California for some added comparison:
It’s true that both Michigan and Alabama have seen increases in their seven-day rolling averages, but they’re hardly massive. This is how CNN described Michigan’s case increase:
Michigan cases are increasing the fastest, with more than a 50% jump this week compared to last, according to the Johns Hopkins data. Delaware, Montana, Alabama and West Virginia have also seen big increases.
There’s a long list of factors contributing to the spike in cases in Michigan, according to Dr. Jennifer Morse, the medical director for the Mid-Michigan District Health Department.
Those include the rolling back of restrictions, a prison outbreak, Covid-19 fatigue, a failure to wear masks, and the B.1.1.7 variant fueling the surge, Morse told CNN. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer eased restrictions earlier this month, upping capacity limits at restaurants as well as in retail stores, gyms and other facilities.
This makes it sound as though Michigan has entered into a full rapid spike upward of COVID-19 cases. That’s not what the data shows, however; it shows an increase from an already-low level that appears to be worryingly sustaining. That’s a matter of concern, but it’s not a harbinger of another national spike. Alabama’s increase appears to be more recent and perhaps fluky; West Virginia’s barely registers at all, perhaps due to its early success at rapid vaccinations.
What about Florida and Texas? Despite relaxed restrictions in both states, cases have rapidly declined from higher spikes (which, we should note, are not population-controlled). Texas’ data shows a spike in February, but that appears to be a reporting issue during the massive and catastrophic storm in Texas and the Midwest.
And in any case, we have the national data — which cuts directly against the idea that we’re on the cusp of anything except the effective end of the pandemic. In fact, the national data looks even better on deaths:
This is exactly what we’d expect to see with 12% of the US population fully vaccinated, and a third of the population given at least one dose. It’s also what we’d expect to see as the weather warms up and people have more options for outdoor activities. The COVID-19 virus does not do well in sunshine and warm weather; almost all transmission takes place indoors, so the more people can be outside — say, at a beach — the better off they are.
Don’t take the word of media outlets or Planned Parenthood on the trajectory of the pandemic, or on “cusps” of anything. Watch the data, figure out the true trends, and draw your own obvious conclusions. But get vaccinated as soon as possible so that we can drive all of these numbers down to the black lines and get the media out of the sky-is-always-falling business.