What is an acceptable rate of daily cases in order to reopen the U.S. economy?
The short answer is that health officials don't know yet.
Last year, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, said the U.S. should have less than 10,000 cases per day to reopen the economy.
That was before the authorization of vaccines, and officials have not set a new target date as a result.
At a recent White House COVID-19 Response Team briefing, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky noted that the country is currently still in precarious place, logging more than 60,000 cases daily on average.
"In the context of vaccination, we still need to have our case counts be really low to stop circulating virus, to stop the emergence of variants, to stop hospitalizations and ultimately stop deaths," Walensky said, noting that the country's death rate is on the decline due to increased vaccinations.
"I think we're way too high to be thinking that we've won this race," she added.
'We would not recommend doing anything different'
At a recent House subcommittee hearing on the coronavirus crisis response, Fauci and Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan engaged in a heated exchange in which the Republican congressman attempted to get an objective timeline out of Fauci.
"What metrics, what measures, what has to happen before Americans get more freedom?" Jordan asked.
Fauci answered that it would be when the daily rate gets to a point that the virus is "no longer a threat." Jordan pushed back, asking for any concrete metrics, but Fauci did not offer any, noting instead that it was more important to focus on getting as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible.
Fauci added that vaccinations are expected to have an impact on daily case counts, but the focus should remain primarily on reducing the case count before looking to reopen.
"We would not recommend doing anything different until we get well below the level we are now," he said.
Fauci recently told CNN that until cases fall below 10,000, the U.S. shouldn't loosen restrictions.
Meanwhile, California recently announced it is targeting June 15 for a full reopening — contingent upon a reduction in cases and increased vaccinations, despite multiple variants spreading. Gov. Gavin Newsom added that mask-wearing and social distancing will still be required.
The current color-coded tiered system, used to help identify which counties can open up compared to others, will be removed. According to that system, for counties, California defines minimal spread as less than 2,000 cases per day.
A lot of focus has been placed on the idea of achieving herd immunity, which occurs when a majority of a community is immune — in this case through immunizations — to a specific disease.
Fauci has said in recent months that herd immunity could occur when anywhere between 70% to 80% of people are vaccinated, but he's also been wary about locking in to a specific number.
While the U.S. remains the fastest globally in its rate of vaccinations, it could hit a plateau as a confluence vaccine hesitancy and still-unvaccinated children affect the potential to reach herd immunity.
Recently, five states alone accounted for a majority of daily cases, including New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida.
As a result, health experts have been focused on low-tech vaccine appointment strategies and community education about existing vaccines. Vaccine companies are in early stages of testing the vaccine on children, with a target of fall to inoculate the youngest age groups.
But until all are resolved, defining herd immunity remains tough.
"We should be careful about wedding ourselves to this concept of herd immunity because we really do not know precisely, for this particular virus, what that is," Fauci recently told U.S. senators at a hearing.
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