COVID-19 cases dropped about 5 percent this week, while testing rose 12 percent as backlogs in reported tests—always a little slower to recover than reported cases—rolled in following disruptive mid-February storms. The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 dropped almost 16 percent week over week, making this the seventh straight week of sharp declines in hospitalizations. States and territories reported 12,927 deaths this week, including a substantial backlog from the Commonwealth of Virginia.
The decline in cases has been a point of confusion in the past week, as daily reports briefly jogged up after a large drop following the long Presidents’ Day weekend and disruptive winter storms in mid-February. A look at percentage change in reported cases since November 1 helps illustrate the dips and rises in reported cases seen around Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day, and—more recently—the winter storms in mid-February. (On November 8, California did not report data in time to be included in our daily compilation.) Cases may plateau or rise at any point, and a close watch of the numbers is essential as vaccinations roll out alongside the spread of SARS-CoV-2 variants. But we would urge data watchers to be wary of conflating reporting artifacts with real changes in the state of the pandemic.
Although it seems unlikely, based on current figures, that a new surge is showing up in the case numbers, it is quite possible that case declines are beginning to slow. With reported tests up 12 percent this week—likely also because of a storm-related dip and rise—it’s impossible to be certain whether the case decline is slowing because of an increase in testing, or because disease prevalence itself is declining, albeit more slowly. We can look to other metrics, however, to help us interpret the past two weeks of case numbers.
One way to confirm that a change in reported cases—especially one preceded by a disruptive event like a holiday or a major storm—reflects reality is to look at new hospital admissions. This metric, which is available in the federal hospitalization data set, has tracked very closely with cases since the hospitalization data set stabilized last fall, but has not shown the same vulnerability to reporting disruptions produced by holidays or severe weather. Charting federal case data against new-admissions data shows that the decline in new admissions continues, though slightly more slowly than the decline in cases.
This signal helps confirm that the brief rise in daily reported cases in the past week was very unlikely to signal a new surge in cases—though, again, cases may not be dropping as quickly as they were in late January and early February. It’s nevertheless important to note that cases remain extremely high, and have only this week dipped below the peak of the summer’s case surge. (Though we’re almost certainly detecting a larger percentage of cases now than we were in the summer, as our testing capacity in the U.S. has increased.) The sustained decline in cases and hospitalizations is very encouraging, but with multiple variants of SARS-CoV-2 gaining footholds in U.S. cities, it remains vitally important to further reduce the virus’s spread via masking, social distancing, and avoiding indoor gatherings.