By Christina Maxouris and Jason Hanna, CNN
(CNN) — The United States could start letting the general public have access to Covid-19 vaccines in April, and the country may be able to inoculate most Americans by the middle or end of the summer, Dr. Anthony Fauci said Thursday.
The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told NBC’s “Today” show that he believes the pace of vaccination will pick up going into March and April.
More doses should be available daily by then, he said. And he said he was “fairly certain” that toward the end of April, pharmacies, community vaccine centers and mobile units will help pick up the pace — and not just for those in higher priority groups.
“I would imagine by the time we get to April, that will be what I would call for, you know, for better wording, open season,” Fauci said. “Namely, virtually everybody and anybody in any category could start to get vaccinated.”
Fauci has previously said the Americans had a chance of living a little more normally by early fall, assuming 70% to 85% of the US population was vaccinated by end of summer.
Meanwhile, more states are loosening Covid-19 restrictions, even as experts warn the US is not in the clear as more-transmissible variants are increasingly appearing across the country.
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte signed a bill on Wednesday shielding businesses and houses of worship from legal liability for Covid-19 transmission as long as they take measures to follow public health guidelines, and announced he would not extend the statewide mask mandate.
“The mask mandate will expire on Friday,” the governor said, adding, “Since we’re not out of the woods yet, I will continue to wear a mask, and I will encourage all Montanans to do the same.”
Chicago officials said Wednesday indoor service at bars, restaurants and events can expand to the lesser of 25% capacity or 50 people per room or floor. The measure, which will be effective Thursday, comes as part of a broader plan to slowly ease Covid-19 restrictions in the city.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that stadiums and arenas with more than 10,000 seats can reopen starting February 23, with approval from the state’s health department — with heavy restrictions. The Barclays Center in Brooklyn has already been approved to open that day for the Brooklyn Nets’ NBA game against the Sacramento Kings.
However, New York’s stadiums must limit capacity to 10%; they must ensure all staff and spectators received a negative Covid-19 PCR test within the last 72 hours; and they must mandate face coverings and assigned, socially distanced seating.
“While we continue to fight Covid on multiple fronts, we must also get this economy re-opened intelligently and in a balanced way,” Cuomo said.
In New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said the state will drop its mandatory-quarantine rule for people coming from “high-risk” states, attributing the policy change to a “cautiously brighter pandemic outlook after several months of unsustainable strain on the state’s health care system.”
But health experts have warned Covid-19 variants complicate the country’s outlook. Easing restrictions now is “incredibly risky,” Dr. Richard Besser, former acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned earlier this week.
“It is absolutely essential that we continue to do steps beyond vaccination to keep this under control,” Besser said. “The more this virus is allowed to spread in our communities, the more we’re going to see these variants spreading.”
Cases, hospitalizations and deaths are dropping, for now
The CDC has said a more transmissible variant first identified in the United Kingdom could be dominant in the US in March, and could worsen virus spread.
For now, however, the rates of new Covid-19 cases and deaths, and the numbers of Covid-19 patients in hospitals, are dropping after holiday-era surges:
— Cases: The US has averaged 104,304 new Covid-19 cases a day over the last week — down 58% since the country’s peak average of more than 249,800 on January 8, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
— Hospitalizations: More than 76,900 Covid-19 patients were in US hospitals on Wednesday — the lowest total since November 16, according to the COVID Tracking Project. The number has been below 100,000 for 12 straight days.
— Deaths: The country has averaged 2,779 Covid-19 deaths a day over the last week — down from the nation’s peak average of 3,363 in mid-January, Johns Hopkins data shows.
— The national test positivity rate — or the percentage of tests taken that turn out to be positive — now averages 6.49%, according to the COVID Tracking Project.
That’s down from a winter peak of around 13.6% in early January. But the World Health Organization has recommended governments not reopen until the test positivity rate is 5% or lower for at least two weeks.
An ensemble forecast published Wednesday by the CDC projects the US could see another 68,000 virus-related deaths by March 6, adding to the more than 471,700 already recorded.
Which states are digging for variants
So far, more than 940 cases of Covid-19 variants first detected in the UK, South Africa, and Brazil have been reported in the US, according to CDC data.
But the number likely doesn’t represent all of the variant cases in the country, experts have cautioned. While the US is ramping up its genome-sequencing efforts to be able to hunt for the variants, it still lags far behind many other developed nations.
“I think once we have more sequencing that’s happening, we’ll have a better idea as to how many variants there are and what proportion are out there,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said earlier this week.
But only eight states have genetically sequenced more than 1% of their total Covid-19 cases during the pandemic — compared to the national average of just under 0.4%, according to CDC data.
Those states comprise Hawaii, Maine, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Utah, Washington state and Wyoming.
Eighteen states have sequenced less than 0.1% of their confirmed Covid-19 cases.
CDC: Second vaccine dose can be administered later
Meanwhile, the CDC also released new guidance on best practices for managing second doses of the vaccine.
The Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines authorized for emergency use in the US are administered as two doses — 21 and 28 days apart, respectively.
But if it’s not possible to adhere to those recommended intervals, the new CDC guidance says the second dose “may be scheduled for administration up to 6 weeks (42 days) after the first dose.”
So far, more than 33.7 million Americans have received at least their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, CDC data shows, while more than 10.4 million people are now fully vaccinated.
The agency said Wednesday that people who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19 can skip quarantine if they are exposed to someone infected with the virus.
“Fully vaccinated persons who meet criteria will no longer be required to quarantine following an exposure to someone with COVID-19,” the CDC said.
That criteria: People must be fully vaccinated — having had both shots with at least two weeks having passed since the second shot.
But the agency added that protection may wear off after three months, so people who had their last shot three months ago or more should quarantine if they are exposed, and they should also quarantine if they show symptoms.
“At this time, vaccinated persons should continue to follow current guidance to protect themselves and others, including wearing a mask, staying at least 6 feet away from others, avoiding crowds, avoiding poorly ventilated spaces, covering coughs and sneezes, washing hands often, following CDC travel guidance, and following any applicable workplace or school guidance,” the agency said.
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