The Covid-19 pandemic is finally in retreat

May 22, 2021 | 7 comments

By David Leonhardt

I want to end this week by showing you two Covid-19 charts. They contain the same message: The pandemic is in retreat.

In the United States, there is now an excellent chance that the retreat is permanent. Victory over Covid has not yet arrived, but it is growing close. After almost a year and a half of sickness, death, grieving and isolation, the progress is cause for genuine joy.

More than 60 percent of American adults have received at least one vaccine shot, and the share is growing by about two percentage points per week. Among unvaccinated people, a substantial number have already had Covid and therefore have some natural immunity. “The virus is running out of places to be communicable,” Andy Slavitt, one of President Biden’s top Covid advisers, told me.

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The share of Covid tests coming back positive has fallen below 3 percent for the first time since widespread testing began, and the number of hospitalized patients has fallen to the lowest point in 11 months, Dr. Eric Topol of the Scripps Research Translational Institute noted. For the first time since March 5 of last year, San Francisco General Hospital yesterday had no Covid patients — “a truly momentous day,” Dr. Vivek Jain said.

There are still important caveats. Covid remains especially dangerous in communities with low vaccination rates, as Slavitt noted, including much of the Southeast; these communities may suffer through future outbreaks. And about 600 Americans continue to die from the disease every day.

But the sharp decline in cases over the past month virtually guarantees that deaths will fall over the next month. The pandemic appears to be in an exponential-decay phase, as this helpful Times essay by Zoë McLaren explains. “Every case of Covid-19 that is prevented cuts off transmission chains, which prevents many more cases down the line,” she writes.

This isn’t merely a theoretical prediction. In Britain, one of the few countries to have given a shot to a greater share of the population than the U.S., deaths are down more than 99 percent from their peak.

And around the world
Globally, the situation is not as encouraging, but it has improved. Confirmed new cases are down 23 percent from their peak in late April. In India, caseloads have been falling rapidly for almost two weeks.

What’s behind the improvement? Several factors.

New restrictions on behavior appear to have helped in India and some other countries. The rising number of vaccinations also helps; it has exceeded 1.5 billion, which means that more than 10 percent of the world’s population — and maybe closer to 15 percent — has received at least one shot. (A new outlier: Mongolia has secured enough shots to vaccinate all of its adults, thanks to deals with neighboring Russia and China.) Natural immunity, from past infections, may also be slowing the spread in many places, and the virus’s seasonal cycles may play a role, too.

Most countries remain more vulnerable than the U.S. because of their lower vaccination rates. In Africa, a tiny share of people have received a shot, and the numbers are only modestly higher in much of Latin America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

The vaccines are how this pandemic ends. That point is coming nearer in the United States and a few other affluent countries, but it remains distant in much of the world. Accelerating the global manufacturing and distribution of vaccines is the only sure way to avoid many more preventable deaths this year. (The Times editorial board, The Economist and National Review have each recently laid out arguments for how to do so.)

“Unless vaccine supplies reach poorer countries, the tragic scenes now unfolding in India risk being repeated elsewhere,” The Economist’s editors wrote. “Millions more will die.”
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Credit: The New York Times Morning Letter

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