The status of the pandemic, in three charts

The status of the pandemic, in three charts

Public discussion of “herd immunity” often treats it like an on-off switch: When the US reaches 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 from being infected or from being vaccinated – the less easily the virus will spread.

Nearly 30 percent of Americans have now had the virus, according to Youyang Gu, a computer scientist. (That includes many people who have never had a Covid test.) About 18 percent have received at least one vaccine shot. There is some overlap between these two groups, which means that About 40 percent of Americans now have some protection against Covid.

Had these people been exposed to the virus a year ago, they could have been infected – 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, slowly, running out of new people to infect.”

The pandemic is still a long way off. And the situation can 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, largely thanks to rising immunity levels.

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 vaccine news) and negative (rising cases and declining vaccination rates). Since then, the good news has largely continued, and the bad news has not. Below is another update, with the help of three charts.

As the number of new cases began to rise last month, it was reasonable to wonder whether the more contagious strains of the virus were on the verge of triggering a nationwide surge. They do not have. In retrospect, the increase in February looks like a blip:

One caveat, as you can see in the chart, is that the latest decline is much milder than the declines in 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 is not about to end.

The current pace will not be impressive 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 that point, three million daily shots would be a more reasonable goal.

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

I advise you to keep two different ideas about the variants in the back of your mind at the same time: First, one or more of the variants can create terrible problems – by being highly contagious, by re-infecting people who already had Covid or by causing even more severe symptoms. For example, a British study published yesterday found that the B.1.1.7 variant increases the risk of death in unvaccinated people.

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

In Florida, where B.1.1.7 has spread widely, “there is no sign of any increase in cases,” Dr. Eric Topol of Scripps Research wrote. In South Africa, where the B.1.351 variant was first discovered, cases are still plummeting:

That’s a remarkable decline, given the variety. What explains it? Increasing natural immunity appears to be part of the cause, The Financial Times has reported. Increasing vaccinations also helps. So did the restrictions South Africa imposed in late December and January, including “a ban on the sale of alcohol, the closure of all borders and most beaches, and an extended curfew,” Bloomberg explained.

South Africa’s situation 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 vaccination and discouraging unnecessarily risky behaviour.

In the past week, another 12,000 Americans died from Covid. The crisis continues.

In other virus news:

  • The US plans to buy an additional 100 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which could be used to inoculate children when the FDA allows it.

  • The Biden administration has loosened its guidelines for nursing home visits. The councils recommend outdoor visits, but say that “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, argues The Times’ editors.

Lives Lived: In 1994, thieves stole “The Scream”, Edvard Munch’s masterpiece, from the National Gallery in Oslo. Three months later it was returned, largely thanks to the efforts of a Scotland Yard detective named Charles Hill. Hill died aged 73.

Last month, someone bought an animated gif of a flying cat for more than $500,000. A short video by artist Beeple went for nearly $7 million. Anyone can still 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 mostly 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 do that for something purely digital that can be easily copied and shared over the Internet,” said Erin Griffith, a Times tech reporter who has written about the trend. “But the popularity of NFTs shows that people are willing to pay for special, scarce 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. In music, Kings of Leon’s latest album is a NFT.

“Brood” by Jackie Polzin is a “fantastically written first novel, full of nuance and humor and strangeness,” writes author 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, find all 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’ story quoted a certain Delaware senator praising her: “President Clinton — though not the first time at bat — has hit a home run.”

You can see today’s printed front page here.

Today’s episode of “The Daily” is about parallels between Diana and Meghan. On “Sway”, Spike Lee discusses his films.

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