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The US vaccine situation is looking up — but experts say you should keep wearing a mask

The US set a new daily record for vaccinations on Saturday with 2.9 million shots.

A Black man in a black suit and a blue surgical mask tightens the straps on a clear full-face mask on a sunny day.
A man adjusts his second face mask ahead of a funeral service in Los Angeles.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images

As the US ramps up its mass vaccination campaign, public health experts are warning against complacency — and a possible new surge in cases.

On Sunday, Dr. Michael Osterholm, who leads the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, compared the current US Covid-19 situation to “the eye of the hurricane” in an interview with host Chuck Todd on Meet the Press. Of particular concern, Osterholm said, are coronavirus variants that have higher transmission rates and are believed to be more deadly.

“It appears that things are going very well,” Osterholm said. “You can see blue skies. We’ve been through a terrible, terrible year. But what we know is about to come upon us is the situation with this B.1.1.7 variant ... we do have to keep America as safe as we can from this virus by not letting up on any of the public health measures we’ve taken.”

One of those public health measures has been increasingly successful of late: White House Covid-19 czar Jeff Zients told Meet the Press Sunday that a record 2.9 million Covid-19 vaccines were administered on Saturday, setting a new record for the third day in a row.

On average, Zients said, the US is now administering about 2.2 million shots per day, an increase of 1.3 million doses per day compared to mid-January levels.

And according to Andy Slavitt, a senior adviser on the White House Covid-19 response, a majority of adults age 65 and older — 59 percent — have received at least one dose of the vaccine, as have about 23 percent of all US adults.

Polling suggests that vaccine hesitancy is also falling in the US, even as vaccine supply increases. According to a new Pew Research Center poll Friday, a combined 69 percent of the US population has either already been vaccinated or plans to get a vaccine when one becomes available.

That’s a significant step up from November, when only 60 percent of American adults said they definitely or probably would get the vaccine when it became available, according to Pew, and even more so from the nadir of US vaccine confidence in September, when just 51 percent planned to get vaccinated. Public health experts believe 70 to 80 percent of Americans will need to be vaccinated for the US to have herd immunity.

Vaccine hesitancy fell even more sharply among Black Americans in the most recent Pew poll: 61 percent now say they have either already been vaccinated or plan to get a vaccine, compared to 42 percent in November.

Those stats are just the latest bit of good vaccine news in the US, following the Food and Drug Administration’s authorization of a third vaccine for emergency use late last month, and President Joe Biden’s Tuesday announcement that the US was “on track to have enough vaccine supply for every adult in America by the end of May.”

On Saturday, Biden laid out an even more ambitious target, suggesting that the US could have enough vaccines by mid-May.

Biden also announced a new partnership between the pharmaceutical giants Merck and Johnson & Johnson on Tuesday. The two companies are set to work together in order to step up production of Johnson & Johnson’s newly approved single-shot vaccine, which clinical trials have shown is highly effective at preventing hospitalization and serious illness from Covid-19.

And billions of federal dollars for vaccine distribution are almost on the way after the Senate passed a $1.9 trillion stimulus package on Saturday along strict party lines. The bill will be back in the House this week for a final vote and is expected to land on Biden’s desk for a signature soon afterward.

Combined, the vaccine news points to a far more optimistic trajectory for the country heading into spring and summer, as Dr. Anthony Fauci noted on Face the Nation Sunday.

“We need to gradually pull back [on restrictions] as we get more people vaccinated,” he told host Margaret Brennan. “And that is happening every single day, more and more people, and particularly as we get more doses, which are going to be dramatically increased as we get into April and May.”

Don’t relax yet, public health experts say

Despite a tide of good news in recent weeks, Fauci also cautioned against rolling back restrictions too quickly, pointing out in his Face the Nation appearance Sunday that although US Covid-19 cases have fallen sharply in recent weeks, the decline is “starting to plateau.”

“Plateauing at a level of 60,000 to 70,000 new cases per day is not an acceptable level,” Fauci said. “And if you look at what happened in Europe a few weeks ago, they’re usually a couple of weeks ahead of us in these patterns, they were coming down too, then they plateaued. And over the last week or so, they’ve had about a 9 percent increase in cases.”

Not every state in the US has taken Fauci’s warnings to heart, however: Despite concerns about a variant-fueled surge in the US, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves both moved to lift mask mandates and loosen other public health restrictions in their states last week, alarming public health officials.

“When you look at the numbers in Mississippi,” Reeves told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday, “It doesn’t justify government intervention. ... Our number one tool against the virus is putting shots in arms.”

According to the Washington Post, however, Mississippi lags the rest of the nation in vaccine distribution per capita as of Thursday, as does Texas. And while vaccines are an important mitigation tool, Osterholm advocated for maintaining other techniques to stop infections as well, telling Meet the Press, “You wouldn’t catch me tonight in a crowded restaurant somewhere, even with my vaccination.”

Noting that public health guidance continues to recommend masks and social distancing, some of Abbott and Reeves’s fellow Republican governors, such as West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, have expressed confusion with Texas and Mississippi’s decision to relax restrictions early.

“For crying out loud,” Justice told Face the Nation Sunday, “If we could be a little more prudent for 30 more days, or 45 more days, or whatever it took for us to get on rock-solid ground, that’s the approach West Virginia’s going to take.”

Justice’s stance isn’t just supported by public health experts, but polling also suggests that it’s popular: According to a new poll by ABC and Ipsos, a majority of Americans — about 56 percent — think mask mandates are being relaxed too quickly.

Zients reiterated that position to Todd on Sunday.

“We need to make sure that we do not let down our guard,” Zients said. “We need to stay on this path and beat this pandemic.”