Covid-19 cases have declined sharply. These factors will determine how pandemic unfolds from here, group of experts says – CNN

Another 130,000 Americans
are projected to die of the virus over the next three and a half months, according to the latest model from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
And while Covid-19 numbers may be trending in the right direction now, there are four key factors that will determine how the next months unfold, the IHME said in a
briefing accompanying its model.
The first two are what will likely help the pandemic numbers continue a downward trajectory: increasing vaccinations and declining
seasonality — the pattern of lower transmission that’s likely in the US during the spring and summer months.

“Two factors, however, can slow or even reverse the declines that have begun,” the IHME team said.

The first factor is the
spread of the B.1.1.7 variant, which was first identified in the UK and experts warned could become the dominant strain in the US by spring. Data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows more than 980 cases of the variant have so far been detected across 37 states.

The second factor, according to the IHME team, is “increased behaviors that favor COVID-19 transmission.”

“Transmission has been contained over the winter through mask wearing, decreased mobility, and avoidance of high-risk settings such as indoor dining,” the team
said. “As daily case counts decline and vaccination increases, behaviors are likely to change towards increased risk of transmission.”
That’s why experts say now is not the time for the US to let down its guard, even as a growing list of governors
loosen Covid-19 restrictions.

On Friday, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said the state rolled back Covid-19 restrictions on youth sports, allowing parents or guardians of young athletes to attend. On the same day, Maine’s governor issued an executive order expanding gathering limits for houses of worship.

Indoor dining —
with capacity limits — resumed in New York City ahead of the Valentine’s Day holiday, with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo
announcing Friday he was extending bar and restaurant closing times to 11 p.m. statewide.
A nurse administers  a Covid-19 vaccine at Kedren Health on Thursday in Los Angeles.
A nurse administers  a Covid-19 vaccine at Kedren Health on Thursday in Los Angeles.

‘One step closer to winning the war’

Despite lingering concerns, officials are hopeful the continued ramping up of vaccinations is beginning to shift the pandemic’s course in a positive direction.

So far, about 37 million Americans have received at least their first dose of the two-part Covid-19 vaccines available to the US market, CDC data
shows. About 13 million Americans are now fully vaccinated.

The IHME expects 145 million adults to be vaccinated by June 1, it said in a statement, which would prevent 114,000 deaths.

“Our vaccine supply is going up, the positivity rate is going down and we’re getting one step closer to winning the war against COVID each day,” Cuomo said in a statement, referring to New York’s vaccinations.

The state has so far administered 90% of the first dose vaccines it’s received from the federal government and more than 80% of first and second doses, the governor said.

In California, officials announced millions of people will be added to the vaccination priority list, including residents “at high risk with developmental and other disabilities” and residents with serious underlying health conditions. The plan, which will begin mid-March, broadens the ages of eligible individuals from 65 and older to ages 16 through 64 who are in those categories.

Still, the state continues to face a “scarcity of vaccine,” according to California Health and Human Services Agency Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly. The supply shortage has forced
several Los Angeles mass vaccination centers to temporarily close.
The move to vaccinate more people in prioritized groups — especially those with comorbidities or underlying health conditions that put them at greater risk —
hasn’t been uniform nationwide, a CNN analysis showed.

In some states, people with underlying health conditions remain ineligible to receive the vaccine. In states where they are, there is variation in what conditions make someone eligible and what is required to confirm that condition. And where those groups are eligible for a vaccine, counties may have different timelines in how quickly those groups are getting vaccinated.

A new challenge over the weekend

Some parts of the US this weekend are facing another challenge that’s slowing down vaccinations: winter weather.

Federal officials expect Covid-19 vaccine shipments to Texas will be delayed this week because of a powerful winter storm, Texas Division of Emergency Management Chief W. Nim Kidd said.

“Our vaccines that are set to arrive on Sunday, Monday will probably not arrive until Wednesday, Thursday,” Kidd said Saturday, “so we will see delays in vaccine coming into the state.”

Some local outdoor vaccination facilities also shut down ahead of the storm, the chief added, though indoor vaccination administration will continue “as long as it is still safe to drive there.”

In Portland, Oregon, where rain and snow have caused widespread power outages, the mass Covid-19 vaccination site at the Oregon Convention Center is closed Sunday due to weather, according to a
tweet from Kaiser Permanente NW. Those who had appointments will be contacted to reschedule.

How the CDC recommends you travel

Meanwhile, as officials continue to track both ongoing vaccinations and the spread of variants, there have been questions about whether there could be changes coming to travel-related requirements.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg
recently said the Biden administration was considering a rule that would require negative Covid-19 test results for domestic air travel.
While the agency does not recommend travel at this time, the CDC told CNN it
does not currently recommend a Covid-19 testing requirement before domestic air travel.

“At this time, CDC is not recommending required point of departure testing for domestic travel,” according to the CDC statement. “As part of our close monitoring of the pandemic, in particular the continued spread of variants, we will continue to review public health options for containing and mitigating spread of COVID-19 in the travel space.”

“If someone must travel, they should get tested with a viral test 1-3 days before the trip,” the agency said. “After travel, getting tested with a viral test 3-5 days post-travel and staying home and self-quarantining for 7 days, even if test results are negative, is a recommended public health measure to reduce risk.”

And just because someone is vaccinated, does not mean they have a free pass to travel and not follow guidelines,
Dr. Anthony Fauci has previously cautioned.

“It is not a good idea to travel, period,” Fauci has said. “If you absolutely have to travel and it’s essential then obviously, one would have to do that. But we don’t want people to think because they got vaccinated then other public health recommendations just don’t apply.”

CNN’s Michael Nedelman, Lauren Mascarenhas, Elizabeth Cohen, Melissa Alonso Rebekah Riess, Hollie Silverman, Stephanie Becker, Cheri Mossburg, Kristina Sgueglia and Evan Simko-Bednarski contributed to this report.