'The worst is behind us': COVID virus ebbs, lending hope to a nation lashed by disease

The virus that causes COVID-19 has decreased only slightly in the United States.
As experts have predicted, the pandemic works less with a light switch than with a dimmer - it dials back and forth in different pockets around the country. For once, the nation's pandemic is turning in the right direction for once.
"I think we can confidently say the worst is behind us, save for one crazy unforeseen twist that none of us expected," said Dr. Ashish K. Jha, Dean of Brown University School of Public Health.
MORE: The COVID burden is shifting to younger Americans with vaccinated older generations
"We're not going to see the kind of suffering and death we saw on vacation. I think we're in much better shape on the way forward," Jha told ABC's Good Morning America on Friday.
More than half of the country - 26 states - reported declining case numbers last week, with new cases down 18 percent. Deaths and hospital stays are also falling. Even in Michigan, the US hotspot this spring, the daily case average has dropped more than 36 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"We believe this is related to increased vaccination and increased caution, so I'm cautiously optimistic that we will go around the corner," said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told GMA this week.
PHOTO: Florida State Fair 2021 attendees will tour a range of concessions and vendors at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa, Florida on opening day April 22, 2021 (Douglas R. Clifford / Tampa Bay Times via ZUMA Wire).
The Philadelphia Children's Hospital, which runs its own weekly forecast, called it "clear evidence that transmission is falling" and forecast the trend would continue.
"Much of the improvement is related to increases in vaccination rates in younger and mid-adult adults," the hospital's PolicyLab concluded this week.
MORE: Chicago introduces "Vax Pass" to allow vaccinated summer concerts
This cautious optimism comes with major caveats. Health experts predict that the nearly 100 million Americans who are fully vaccinated will not be nearly enough to fight the pandemic. While this makes up around 30 percent of the population, an estimated 70 to 85 percent of the country would have to be protected for “herd immunity” to take effect. Previous infection of the virus may also not count as it is not known how long the immunity will last.
In Oregon, for example, officials warned the number of cases has increased and hospital stays have doubled in the past two weeks, a trend borne by younger unvaccinated residents.
As the US situation improves, the global situation is still difficult. India is deteriorating and its health system will be devastated by a massive outbreak this spring. Other countries are also struggling to contain outbreaks, making it more likely that if the virus spreads uncontrollably, new variants will form.
MORE: A Preventive Health "Total Breakdown": How India's 2nd Wave of COVID Exploded
"This can happen in a number of countries, in any country, if we let go of our guard. I'm not saying India has put down its guard, but I'm saying we are in a fragile situation," said Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization's technical director for COVID-19, at a press conference this week.
PHOTO: Guests walk past Hogwarts Castle in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter on Universal Studios Hollywood reopening day during the COVID-19 outbreak in Universal City, California on April 15, 2021. (Mario Anzuoni / Reuters)
So far it is believed that the vaccines offered in the United States offer protection against global variants. However, the worst-case scenario, health experts say, is that a new strain will develop overseas that is smarter at evading the body's immune system and compromising the protection of the vaccine.
In other words, it is possible that a smaller version of the pandemic could drag on for months in a whack-a-mole game of sorts. Communities with high vaccination rates would enjoy more freedom from the virus, while areas with greater reluctance could struggle with flare-ups. If global variants arrive, as is almost certain when travel resumes, the US will endeavor to provide booster shots.
Despite all the warnings that the pandemic is not over yet, signs of life are returning. Louisiana called its state fair on Thursday after it was canceled last fall, and promised a second festival in the fall. California Disneyland reopened on Friday and the water parks planned to reopen this summer after last year's lost season.
Perhaps the biggest sign of life to return to the US was the announcement that New York City would be fully reopened on July 1st. Major Broadway productions are expected this fall.
"This will be New York City's summer," Mayor Bill de Blasio declared triumphantly this week. "I think people will flock to New York City because they want to live again."
MORE: According to the CDC, in many cases, vaccinated people can take off the mask outdoors
Other local officials stand ready to declare the pandemic over, even if the country is seeing an average of 50,000 cases a day.
"A widely used vaccine is changing everything and it's a new season in Tennessee," said Bill Lee, governor of Tennessee. "I'm not renewing public health contracts because COVID-19 is no longer a health emergency in our state."
Walensky told reporters on Friday that it was still necessary to drive slowly.
"This virus has tricked us before, so I'd like to see how it goes before I make any further estimates of what's going to happen in a few months," she said.
ABC News' Matthew Vann, Arielle Mitropoulos and Cheyenne Haslett contributed to this report.
"The Worst Is Behind Us": The COVID Virus Is Eating Out, Bringing Hope to a Disease-Stricken Nation. It originally appeared on abcnews.go.com

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