- Public health experts are watching several COVID-19 hot spots around the country, including areas of Florida and Michigan.
- Currently, 27 states are showing increases in COVID-19 cases of 5 percent or more.
- Many experts are concerned that the highly contagious B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the United Kingdom could drive a fourth uptick in cases.
- Many states are also rolling back mask mandates and other physical distancing measures while vaccine distribution struggles to keep up with demand.
- The United States is continuing to average around 58,000 new cases per day, which is comparable to the summer of 2020.
Thousands of spring break revelers have packed the streets of Miami Beach.
Florida’s lax COVID-19 restrictions are likely a draw for many visitors this year.
Declaring a “state of emergency,” the city expanded its pandemic curfew this past weekend. It now starts at 8 p.m. — a change that could last well into next month.
Few in the crowds are wearing masks. There's little to no physical distancing. The partygoers have come from around the country, and some experts fear Florida’s spring break could become the next superspreader event.
Right now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists Florida as having more than 1,000 cases of the highly contagious B.1.1.7 variant, the most in the country, which was first identified in the United Kingdom.
But the agency also says that number is only a sample of the specimens. The true number is likely higher.
“What concerns me is the footage of what's happening [with] spring breakers and people who are not continuing to implement prevention strategies.” said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, during a recent White House press conference.
4th surge warning
The CDC director is warning there could be a fourth COVID-19 surge on the horizon.
At a White House COVID-19 briefing on March 22, Walensky said the continued relaxation of restrictions while new cases are still high — and while the variants are spreading rapidly — is a serious threat to the country’s progress.
“We are at a critical point in this pandemic… a fork in the road where we as a country must decide which path we are going to take,” she said.
“I’m worried that if we don’t take the right actions now… we will have another avoidable surge… just as we are seeing in Europe right now,” Walensky said.
Can vaccines help prevent another surge?
As of March 24, the White House COVID-19 response team says 84 million Americans — or 1 in 3 adults — have gotten at least one dose of a vaccine.
The White House promised another 27 million doses would be distributed this week.
Christopher J.L. Murray, MD, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, said the expansion of vaccinations and the approach of warmer weather will drive transmissions down.
But the spread of new variants, especially B.1.1.7, B.1.351 (first detected in South Africa), and P.1 (first detected in Brazil), as well as the rollback of mask wearing will drive transmissions up.
“There is a considerable risk that there will be a spring surge, and that risk depends on what we will do as a nation,” Murray told Healthline.
“In our models, if mask use declines more quickly, the current spread of B.1.1.7 can easily lead to the spring surge,” he said.
“The increases seen in Michigan are a good indication of what could happen throughout the country,” he added.
New cases and hot spots
Experts are watching Michigan closely.
The Michigan Health and Hospital Association just released some alarming numbers.
The organization said its data shows COVID-19 hospitalizations for the month of March so far increased 633 percent for adults ages 30 to 39 and increased 800 percent for adults ages 40 to 49.
Those are groups that are largely unvaccinated.
Even as new cases are plateauing around the country to around 58,000 new cases a day, Michigan is seeing its new cases spike.
The state has averaged more than 3,700 new cases a day for the past week.
Some experts believe the rise in new cases is tied to the rate of the more infectious B.1.1.7 variant. The CDC says Michigan ranks second in the country for the most reported cases of that variant.
The Michigan health department says more than half of its B.1.1.7 variant cases stem from an outbreak in the state’s prisons.
Could there be a smaller surge?
George Rutherford, III, MD, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, said there may be a fourth surge, but not on the scale of the previous ones.
“I think there's a possibility that there'll be an April surge. It may not be as big as the fall or last summer because there are a lot of people getting vaccinated and there's a lot of naturally acquired immunity around,” he told Healthline.
“You have states like California where the rates are going down, states like Michigan where they're going up. Right now they're balancing each other out,” he said. “We could have what I call regional surges or microsurges.”
But Rutherford said one dynamic could change that picture: a superspreader event.
“What is going to happen in Florida after spring break is anybody's guess. All of those kids will disperse and we may not be able to trace it back,” he explained.
“But I think we might see a fair amount of new infection because that's a nonimmunized population,” Rutherford added.