The rate of new coronavirus infections nationally is dropping. Democratic leaders in New York, California and elsewhere are rolling back mask mandates. Even Dr. Anthony Fauci was quoted this week as saying the country was “certainly” heading out of “the full-blown pandemic phase of Covid-19.”
But as the United States moves unevenly toward a new, less restrictive stage of the pandemic, some areas are still tightly in the grip of the highly transmissible Omicron variant.
A handful of states in the South, including Kentucky, Oklahoma, Tennessee and West Virginia, reported their highest number of new cases in mid- to late January, according to a New York Times database. Hospitalizations and deaths, whose curves tend to rise several weeks after cases spike, were also troublingly high.
In some of these states, the surge may have simply started later. But some also have lower vaccination rates, resulting in more hospitalizations and deaths. While the national average for full vaccination has reached 64 percent of the population, West Virginia and Kentucky are at only 56 percent; Oklahoma has hit 55 percent; and Tennessee is at 53 percent.
Daily hospitalizations in Kentucky, Oklahoma and Tennessee have finally, in recent days, declined modestly, according to the database, but in West Virginia, they have gone up slightly. Average daily deaths in West Virginia and Kentucky are still rising.
That trend — sharp case spikes that then plunged, with a more modest rise in hospitalizations and deaths following — played out first in Northeastern states like New York and New Jersey, where Omicron arrived earlier, and then across the country.
Over the past week, an average of more than 227,000 coronavirus cases has been reported each day in the United States, a decrease of 63 percent from two weeks ago. The national pandemic peak, hit in mid-January, was more than 806,000 cases, according to the Times database.
And the daily average number of patients hospitalized with Covid, which peaked on Jan. 20 at more than 159,000, had fallen to around 108,000 by Wednesday. But not every state is on the same timeline.
Average deaths are still high in California and Florida, and Washington has reported more Covid deaths in the past week than in any other seven-day period of the pandemic.
On Wednesday, as a rush of states announced they would let broad mask mandates expire, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington sought something of a middle ground.
Noting that hospitalization rates were higher in the state “than in any other time during the pandemic,” Mr. Inslee announced the end of an outdoor mask mandate as of Feb. 18, but only offered the hope that he could set a date next week to end the indoor mandate. “Today, caution is still advised,” he said. “It remains our best defense.”
The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, said pointedly on Wednesday that while cases were dropping, it was too soon for all Americans to take off their masks in indoor public places.
“Our hospitalizations are still high, our death rates are still high,” she said during a news briefing by the White House Covid response team. “So, as we work toward that and as we are encouraged by the current trends, we are not there yet.”