If This Is Open Near You, Expect COVID Numbers to Climb, CDC Warns

Death rates rose 41 days after this type of re-opening, says new CDC report.

In the rollercoaster ride that is COVID case tracking, we've just experienced an exhilarating free fall. Numbers plummeted from an all-time high in January, signaling much needed hope for our nation's recovery. But experts warn that case numbers are now stagnating and even rising as states begin to loosen restrictions and reopen. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there's one way to predict which areas will see a surge in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. If restaurants are opening near you, the CDC warns, you can expect COVID numbers to rise. Read on to learn about the CDC's warning, and for more on the pandemic's trajectory, This Is When We Can Expect the Next COVID Surge, Experts Say.

A CDC study released on Mar. 5 reviewed two community safety measures that seemed to impact COVID case rates over time: mask mandates and restaurant re-openings. The authors of the report found that both had a statistically significant impact on community spread. "Allowing on-premises restaurant dining was associated with an increase in daily COVID-19 case growth rates 41–100 days after implementation and an increase in daily death growth rates 61–100 days after implementation," the health authority reported.

Over the course of the study period, restaurants were allowed to reopen for on-premises dining in 3,076 (97.9 percent) of U.S. counties, the report states. The researchers found that on-premises dining—which included indoor and outdoor accommodation by the CDC's definition—was associated with a 2.2 percentage point increase in deaths between 61-80 days after reopening, and a 3.0 percentage point increases in deaths between 81–100 days after reopening.

Though the CDC observed that the increase in cases and deaths became statistically significant after 41 days and not sooner, the researchers noted that there could be several explanations that still support the case for caution.

Addressing those first weeks following eased restrictions, they wrote, "Even though prohibition of on-premises restaurant dining was lifted, restaurants were not required to open and might have delayed reopening. In addition, potential restaurant patrons might have been more cautious when restaurants initially reopened for on-premises dining but might have been more likely to dine at restaurants as time passed. Further analyses are necessary to evaluate the delayed increase in case and death growth rates," the CDC reported.

Regardless, it's safe to say that what we do in the coming weeks and months could determine our case count trajectory. "We are at a critical nexus in the pandemic," CDC director Rochelle Walensky, MD, told The Wall Street Journal on Mar. 5, noting that the nation's seven-day average is up. So, for those of us who prefer the rush of the free fall to the daunting climb, that may mean a few more weeks—or months—of takeout before finally gracing a restaurant in person. Read on for more on insights from Walensky, and if you're eager for things to get back to normal, This Is When the COVID Pandemic Will Be Completely Over, Experts Say.

1
The next few months are crucial.

Female doctor taking coronavirus sample from man. Frontline workers are in protective workwear. They are at hospital during epidemic.
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"I think the next two or three months could go in one of two directions," Walensky told NPR host, Ari Shapiro, in a Mar. 3 interview. "If things open up, if we're not really cautious, we could end up with a post-spring break surge the way we saw a post-Christmas surge. We could see much more disease. We could see much more death."

Walensky also offered up an "alternative vision" in which we buckle down now for a big summer payoff. "[If] we really hunker down for a couple of more months, we get so many people vaccinated and we get to a really great place by summer," she said. And for the latest COVID news delivered straight to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.

2
Current re-openings are at odds with the CDC's recommendations.

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Of course, Walensky's rosier projection is only achievable if there's widespread buy-in, and several states have recently announced mass re-openings—including the return to full-capacity dining—which could thwart the progress she imagines.

"The CDC squarely recommends routine masking, routine social distancing right now, right as we're at this nexus, this critical time, this tenuous point. So it squarely does not fit within the guidance that we are recommending," said Walensky, referring to these announcements. And for one rule the CDC says it can relax, The CDC Is About to Announce This Major COVID Guideline Change.

3
The current infection rates are too high to reduce public health measures.

Portrait of woman suffering high temperature and common cold in bedroom. Fever, high temperature, common cold, migraine, tiredness, covid 19 symptoms
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Walensky cautioned that pandemic fatigue during this crucial time could easily contribute to a surge in new cases. "We are all exhausted," she acknowledged.

That's exactly why now is such an essential time to double down on precautions: avoiding the temptations of large gatherings, on-premise dining, and the desire to go mask-free. "What worries me the most is that we're really stabilizing now, teetering at around 60,000 to 70,000 cases a day, and that is too many cases to try and put an end to this pandemic," Walensky told NPR.

4
The vaccine rollout is the light at the end of the tunnel.

young doctor giving middle-aged woman a covid vaccine
Shutterstock/Halfpoint

However cautiously, Walensky expressed optimism when asked about the vaccine rollout, referring to it as the "light at the end of the tunnel."

"I think the supply is going to increase more and more in the weeks ahead. I think end of March looks better, end of April looks even better than that," Walensky said. "So I think really we're talking in the four to eight week range where we're really going to start seeing a real step-up of supply," she added. And if you're looking for crucial vaccine news, Dr. Fauci Just Confirmed You Can Do This After Getting Vaccinated.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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