What the Drop in Coronavirus Cases Means

Covid-19 cases are down significantly, but there’s still a lot of work to do

Surgical masks
Photo: Juvnsky Anton M. on Unsplash

The latest data shows that cases of Covid-19 in the United States have been dropping — though they still remain at high levels — and experts say it’s important to embrace some of the learnings of the past couple months and prepare for the fall.

Cases of the coronavirus in the United States increased significantly in June and July before plateauing and then finally dropping — a trend that’s being seen currently, though there continue to be new emerging hot spots in areas like the Midwest. Over the past week, there have been an average of 41,520 cases per day, which is a decrease of 17% from the average two weeks earlier. The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security reports that the United States is continuing to average fewer than 1,000 deaths per day, though the daily total is decreasing very slowly.

These decreases are not seen everywhere, but the states leading the drops have a few notable things in common. As the New York Times recently highlighted, states that are experiencing notable declines in cases have “at least some local mask mandates, and most have paused or reversed statewide reopening policies, again closing bars, gyms, and theaters.” Many of the states with the biggest drops in cases also had the biggest outbreaks in July, like Florida and Texas.

“I think we are seeing a decline in cases in certain parts of the country that were prior hot spots,” says Amesh Adalja, MD, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security. “But you have to remember that we’re still not testing enough, so that whatever number of cases you see is still in underestimate.”

While the U.S. case numbers are likely an underestimate across the board, experts say the decrease in cases cannot be attributed to testing failures as there are similar drops in hospitalizations and a lower share of positive test results, the New York Times reports.

Daily confirmed new cases for the 10 most affected countries. Credit: Johns Hopkins University & Medicine
This graph shows the total daily number of virus tests conducted in each state and, of those tests, how many were positive each day. The trend line in blue shows the average percentage of tests that were positive over the past seven days. Credit: Johns Hopkins University & Medicine

As Tom Frieden, MD, a former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shared on Monday, the trends are real but precarious:

National test positivity decreased from 6.2 to 5.7%, which confirms that there has been a steady decrease in cases over the past few weeks. Case rates in the Northeast remain relatively low, and these states are now joined by MI, WV, NM, MT, WY, AK which have relatively low rates. The number of tests done decreased in some states, including Florida.

But as Frieden notes, these declining case loads are still high. There remains concern that resurgences will happen, especially as the school year kicks off with many students having in-person class. Already there are reports of outbreaks among college students around the United States.

What can be gleaned from the decline in cases nationwide is that Covid-19 restrictions like no indoor dining and widespread mask wearing work. As Andy Slavitt, the former head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, wrote this week, recent declines like Arizona’s test positive ratio dropping from 25% to 5% are largely credited to the fact that “people started behaving.” This is a good sign, as it shows that the United States knows what policies lead to tangible changes in disease spread and saved lives.

The issue will be how long these trends remain in place as reopening plans continue. Especially now that there are going to be larger gatherings of people indoors and as the nation heads into cooler months where outdoor activity in many states becomes more difficult.

“The pattern seems to be that areas get in trouble, and then targeted public health actions are put into place, and they get some semblance of control,” Adalja says. “This is the pattern that I think will repeat in different parts of the country over and over again.”

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Health and science journalist. Former editor of Medium’s Covid-19 Blog and deputy editor at Elemental. TIME Magazine writer before that

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