The federal government warned impatient governors against relaxing pandemic control measures on Friday, saying that a recent steep drop in U.S. coronavirus cases and deaths “may be stalling” and “potentially leveling off at still a very high number” — a worrisome development that comes as more cases of concerning new variants have been found and could suggest that a return to normalcy is not yet quite as near as many Americans had hoped.
“Things are tenuous,” Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a White House briefing on the pandemic. “Now is not the time to relax restrictions.”
Her warning was bolstered by Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top epidemiologist, as the Biden administration scrambled to stay ahead of any new wave. President Biden himself flew to Houston to showcase the government’s latest mass vaccine site.
According to a New York Times database, virus cases across the United States appear to be leveling off from the steep decline that began in January, with figures comparable to those reported in late October. Cases have slightly increased week over week in recent days, though severe weather limited testing and reporting in Texas and other states the previous week, and not all states reported complete data on the Presidents Day holiday. The seven-day average of new cases was 77,800 as of Thursday.
While deaths tend to fluctuate more than cases and hospital admissions, Dr. Walensky said at the briefing on Friday, the most recent seven-day average is slightly higher than the average earlier in the week. The seven-day average of newly reported deaths was 2,165, as of Thursday.
“We at C.D.C. consider this a very concerning shift in the trajectory,” she said, adding, “I want to be clear: cases, hospital admissions and deaths — all remain very high and the recent shift in the pandemic must be taken extremely seriously.”
Dr. Walensky said some of the rise may be attributable to new variants of the coronavirus that spread more efficiently and quickly. The so-called B.1.1.7 variant, which first emerged in Britain, now accounts for approximately 10 percent of all cases in the United States, up from one to four percent a few weeks ago, she said. The U.S. ability to track variants is much less robust than Britain’s.
“I know people are tired; they want to get back to life, to normal,” she said. “But we’re not there yet.”
As cases had declined, some governors around the United States have begun to relax pandemic restrictions. States with Republican governors appeared to be more eager to make rollbacks, though New York, which has a Democrat as governor, has also been easing restrictions on a variety of activities.
On Friday, Gov. Henry McMaster of South Carolina, a Republican, announced that on Monday, restaurants would be able to serve alcohol past 11 p.m., and residents would not need to get approval from the state to hold events with 250 people or more. To try to limit the spread of the virus, the state last year ordered bars to stop serving alcohol after 11 p.m., which is three hours earlier than the late-night bar crowd was used to.
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Brian Symmes, a spokesman for Mr. McMaster, said the governor “appreciates perspectives that differ from his own” but “respectfully disagrees” with Dr. Walensky’s assessment.
In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Friday that he’d be lifting restrictions around capacity limits for bars, restaurants, gyms and large venues, but extending the state’s emergency order and mask mandate until March 31. The current emergency order was set to expire February 27.
On Thursday, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas said he was considering lifting a statewide mask mandate in place since July.
In Mississippi, Gov. Tate Reeves said he was also considering pulling back some restrictions, particularly mask mandates for people who have been fully vaccinated. As of Friday, 13 percent of the state’s population has received at least one shot, and 6.2 percent have received two, according to a Times database.
Dr. Fauci echoed Dr. Walensky’s warnings that more rollbacks at state or local levels would be unwise, noting that case levels remained at a “very precarious position.”
“We don’t want to be people always looking at the dark side of things, but you want to be realistic,” he said. “So we have to carefully look at what happens over the next week or so with those numbers before you start making the understandable need to relax on certain restrictions.”
In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown extended the state’s emergency order until May 2. The state recorded a sharp decreases in daily cases, hospitalizations and deaths this week, but citing the new variants Ms. Brown said that “now is not the time to let up our guard.”
Eileen Sullivan Remy Tumin, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs and Mitch Smith contributed reporting.