The status of the pandemic in three charts

The status of the pandemic in three charts

The public discussion of “herd immunity” often treats them like an on-off switch: if the US achieves herd immunity, the crisis will be over; until then, the country has little immunity to Covid-19.

But that’s not right.

Herd immunity is more like a light dimmer. The more people develop immunity — either through infection or through vaccination — the less easily the virus spreads.

Nearly 30 percent of Americans have now had the virus, according to Youyang Gu, a data scientist. (This includes many people who have never taken a Covid test.) About 18 percent have had at least one vaccination. There is some overlap between these two groups, meaning that About 40 percent of Americans now have some protection from Covid.

Had these people been exposed to the virus a year ago, they could have contracted it – and then spread Covid to others. Today many are protected.

“This level of population immunity slows transmission,” Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, wrote in The Washington Post. “After millions of infections and the start of a vaccination campaign, the virus is finally running out of people to infect.”

The pandemic is far from over. And the situation may worsen again due to a combination of risky behavior and new virus variants. Experts are particularly concerned about some states’ rush to lift mask mandates and restrictions on indoor gatherings. For now, however, virus trends are improving, thanks largely to rising immunity.

When I last gave you an overview of the situation in the US two weeks ago, I highlighted a mix of positive trends (declining nursing home deaths and encouraging vaccination news) and negative ones (rising case numbers and falling vaccination numbers). Since then, the good news has largely continued, the bad has not. Below is a new update, with the help of three charts.

As the number of new cases began to rise last month, it was reasonable to question whether the more contagious variants of the virus were on the verge of triggering a nationwide spike. They have not. Looking back, the February surge looks like an outlier:

One caveat, as you can see in the chart, is that the recent decline is much gentler than the declines seen throughout most of January and February. The reasons are not entirely clear, and the variants may play a role. Either way, it’s another sign that the pandemic isn’t nearing an end.

The current pace will not impress for long. By the end of the month, the federal government will receive an average of more than three million doses a day from Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Pfizer. At this point, three million daily shots is a more reasonable goal.

How quickly the Biden and state governments can get there will help determine how many lives will be saved and how quickly normal life will return.

I suggest you keep two different ideas about the variants in mind at the same time: First, one or more of the variants could cause terrible problems – by being highly contagious, reinfecting people who already had Covid, or causing even more severe symptoms. For example, a British study published yesterday found that variant B.1.1.7 increases the risk of death in unvaccinated individuals.

But – here’s the second idea – the overall evidence on the variants so far has been more encouraging than many people expected. The vaccines eliminate hospitalizations and deaths in people who contract a variant. Reinfection does not appear to be widespread. And even if the variants are more contagious, they haven’t caused the kind of surges that seemed possible a few weeks ago.

In Florida, where B.1.1.7 has become widespread, ‘there is no evidence of an increase in cases’ dr Eric Topol written by Scripps Research. In South Africa, where the B.1.351 variant was first discovered, the cases still crash:

Given the variant, that’s a notable drop. What does it explain? Growing natural immunity appears to be one reason, the Financial Times reported. Upgrading vaccinations also helps. So have the restrictions South Africa imposed in late December and January, including “a ban on alcohol sales, the closure of all land borders and most beaches, and an extended curfew,” Bloomberg said.

The situation in South Africa also serves as a useful summary of where the US stands: natural immunity has become a significant force in slowing the pandemic, but government policies can still make a big difference by speeding up vaccinations and unnecessarily risky behavior prevents.

Another 12,000 Americans died from Covid in the past week. The crisis continues.

In other virus news:

  • The US plans to buy another 100 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which can be used to vaccinate children, once the FDA allows it.

  • The Biden administration has relaxed its guidelines on visits to nursing homes. The council recommends outdoor visits but says “responsible indoor visits” should be allowed.

Ten years later: In 2011, a tsunami destroyed the Japanese village of Kesen. Residents have realized that the void is forever.

From opinion: If American democracy is to survive, the filibuster must go, the Times editorial board argues.

lives lived: In 1994, thieves stole The Scream, Edvard Munch’s masterpiece, from the National Gallery in Oslo. It was returned three months later, thanks largely to the efforts of a Scotland Yard detective named Charles Hill. Hill died at the age of 73.

Last month someone bought an animated gif of a flying cat for more than $500,000. A short video by artist Beeple fetched nearly $7 million. Anyone can continue to view or share the clips. So what’s the point of owning them?

It may not make sense for everyone – and has elements of a financial bubble. It mainly comes down to very expensive bragging rights, as well as the potential to resell it for more money.

These rights are known as NFTs, short for nonfungible tokens. “It seems crazy to be doing this for something purely digital that can be easily copied and shared across the web,” Erin Griffith, a Times tech reporter who wrote about the trend, tells us. “But the popularity of NFTs shows that people are willing to pay for special, rare collectibles.”

Technology has made it easier for artists, musicians, and sports franchises to monetize digital goods. The NBA recently introduced a series of NFTs, Top Shot, that turn highlight clips into trading cards. Musically, the latest Kings of Leon album is an NFT.

Jackie Polzin’s Brood is a “beautifully written first novel, full of nuance and humor and strangeness,” writes novelist Elizabeth McCracken in a review.

The pangram from yesterday’s Spelling Bee was Manual. Here’s today’s puzzle – or you can play online.

Here’s today’s mini crossword and a clue: Pops (three letters).

If you’re in the mood to play more, you’ll find all of our games here.


Thank you for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. — David

PS: The Senate confirmed Janet Reno as the nation’s first female attorney general 28 years ago today. The Times article quoted a certain Delaware senator as praising them: “President Clinton, although not for the first time, has hit a home run.”

You can see today’s printed front page here.

Today’s episode of The Daily looks at the parallels between Diana and Meghan. On “Sway” Spike Lee talks about his films.

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