Coronavirus cases, hospitalizations continue to plummet. What's next?
As coronavirus cases and hospitalizations continue to plummet here in Delaware and around the country, Gov. John Carney on Friday announced a loosening of the restrictions for indoor gatherings at businesses and other indoor spaces.
The new rules allow for a maximum of 25 people or 50% of the stated fire occupancy restrictions, whichever is less, though organizers may submit a plan to the Division of Public Health to host larger events up to 150 people. Outdoor gatherings are limited to 50 people or up to 250 with an approved plan from DPH.
"I don’t think anything else is imminent after today’s announcement," said Jonathan Starkey, a spokesman for Carney.
"We are continuing to see positive trends in the numbers – hospitalizations, percent positive, and cases. That’s good news. We are also still moving down from the winter peaks, which is why the governor and the public health team are taking a cautious approach as we see sustained decreases in spread.
"We’ll continue to follow the numbers and ask everyone to do their part."
As of 6 p.m Thursday, hospitalizations dropped to 173, the fewest number of people receiving hospital care for coronavirus-related symptoms on any day since Nov. 20, the state announced Friday.
Hospitalizations are down 64% since the Jan. 12 peak of 474. The average test positivity rate, 4.8%, is less than 5% for the first time since Nov. 11.
The number of people being tested has dropped, too, as the virus's community spread has slowed. Of 5,576 tests conducted on Tuesday, only 253 (4.5%) of them came back positive. That came a day after just 3.2% of 2,797 tests were positive for COVID-19.
It's unclear what benchmarks state and public health officials are aiming for in terms of a broader return to normalcy. Last week capacity restrictions were loosened to cap the occupancy of restaurants, retail locations, gyms, houses of worship, arts venues and other businesses at 50% of the stated fire capacity.
For some restaurants, gyms, houses of worship and retail locations, that was an increase from 30% capacity limits. Other businesses, like Delaware's casinos, saw a decrease from 60% occupancy to 50%.
Friday's order also raised the group exercise class capacity to 15 people, excluding staff, with additional restrictions in place.
The virus's rapid decline isn't limited to inside Delaware's borders. Nationwide, hospitalizations fell by nearly 20% over the last seven days, according to data from the COVID-19 Tracking Project. The percentage of tests returning positive was down 16% over the same time period, too.
Delaware officials remain focused on the continued rollout of vaccinations, a process that has been far from perfect. But most health officials here and nationwide agree that vaccinating the public will aid in reaching herd immunity faster and more safely than loosening restrictions and potentially increasing infections.
In Delaware, nearly 170,000 vaccine doses had been administered as of midday Friday. Federal officials were predicting that weather troubles nationwide would cause delays in delivering vaccines this week, and that appears to have come true in Delaware. The Division of Public Health announced Friday afternoon that some people were being notified that their appointment was canceled or postponed due to limited supply from the federal government and weather-related events.
Some experts are split on when that magic number of herd immunity may be reached. Dr. Rick Hong, DPH's medical director, and Dr. Rick Pescatore, DPH's chief physician, took a cautious line during a recent interview with Delaware Online/The News Journal, saying herd immunity and normalcy would be possible in the early fall.
Another doctor's predictions were making the rounds late this week.
In a widely circulated opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Marty Makary, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Bloomberg School of Public Health, wrote that "there is reason to think the country is racing toward an extremely low level of infection.
"As more people have been infected, most of whom have mild or no symptoms, there are fewer Americans left to be infected. At the current trajectory, I expect Covid will be mostly gone by April, allowing Americans to resume normal life."
Here in Delaware, officials seem to be taking the good trends in stride, but with caution.
"Let’s keep doing what works until we can get enough Delawareans vaccinated," Carney said in a statement Friday. "Wear a mask. Avoid large gatherings where this virus can spread. Wash or sanitize your hands frequently. Stay vigilant.”
Contact Jeff Neiburg at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Jeff_Neiburg.