Coronavirus hospitalizations drop as officials, wary of states reopening, urge caution

About 43,000 people were hospitalized with the coronavirus nationwide on Tuesday, down from a peak of more than 141,000 in early January, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed by The Washington Post. The number of coronavirus patients is now the lowest recorded since October, before a winter surge of cases overwhelmed hospitals in many states. The pace of vaccinations, meanwhile, has accelerated, with the average number of doses given exceeding 2 million per day, according to Post data.

U.S. officials said they were encouraged by the improved numbers, yet continued urging a careful approach to loosening restrictions, concerned that more-contagious new variants of the virus could lead to another spike in cases before enough of the population is vaccinated. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky reiterated during a news briefing Wednesday that cases, hospitalizations and deaths “still remain too high and are somber reminders that we must remain vigilant.”

Nowhere was the tension over relaxing the rules more evident than in Texas, which on Wednesday officially ended its mask mandate, becoming the largest state to do so. Authorities in Austin and the surrounding Travis County announced they would continue requiring face coverings, despite being barred by the state from enforcing such a measure, prompting Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) to threaten a lawsuit.

Across the state, residents and business owners were taking varying approaches to the change announced last week by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who also removed all restrictions on businesses. Some stores maintained signs saying masks were required, while others had signage saying only that masks are encouraged.

At All Things Kids, a toy store in the Austin suburb of Georgetown, a recently posted sign warns: “Everyone is welcome. Discussions about masks are not.” Jakob Janes, a manager at the store, said employees would have no way of enforcing a mask requirement now that they can’t threaten to call the police, as they had to do a couple times over the past year.

“No one’s going to listen to a bunch of 20-year-olds,” he said. “A lot of us are a lot more worried about being at risk.”

In Galveston, a Texas beach city beginning to see the first wave of spring break vacationers, some visitors were still wearing masks, though others said they were done with them. Sam Inman, who was visiting from Canton, Tex., with his wife, daughter and mother, said he felt “awesome” that face coverings are no longer mandatory.

His family went mask-free while watching an employee pull taffy inside La King’s Confectionery, an old-fashioned ice cream parlor and candy shop. Inman said he believes people have a right to decide against masks, and that his family left businesses that asked him and his family to wear them.

“We didn’t raise a big fit,” the private-school teacher said. “We just simply walked away. No big deal. In fact we had a few places here in Galveston that had an issue with us not wearing masks. It’s no problem for us. We just walk away very politely and quietly.”

Elsewhere in Galveston, Carol Ford and Debrah Golden, both 65, wore two masks each while emerging for the first time after months of isolation in their home city of Tyler, on the state’s eastern side. The two women, both fully vaccinated, drove in for a doctor’s appointment and decided to turn the trip into a short beach getaway.

“This is our first foray into society and we thought, well, if we’re coming this far, we’re going to the beach,” Ford said.

Texas is among at least a dozen states that have recently loosened restrictions, citing improvements in coronavirus metrics. The governors of Iowa and Tennessee, both Republicans, also dropped mask mandates. All received sharp criticism from health experts and others; research shows that masks are among the most effective ways to curb the spread of the virus.

The other states announced more incremental changes, such as increased capacity for indoor businesses. Maryland was among the latest to join that list, with Gov. Larry Hogan (R) saying Tuesday that he would lift caps on indoor and outdoor dining, stores, fitness centers and religious establishments.

Some public health experts have been critical of reopening efforts, with Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, telling “Face the Nation” on Sunday that restrictions should be peeled back gradually.

“We do want to come back carefully and slowly about pulling back on mitigation methods. But don’t turn its switch on and off because it really would be risky to have yet again another surge,” he said.

Coronavirus cases have declined sharply across the country, which in the last week reported an average of about 57,000 new cases per day, compared with about 248,00 at the pandemic’s peak in January. Deaths have been averaging about 1,500 per day, down from a high of about 3,300.

In addition to seeing a decline in coronavirus patients, hospitals have seen their number of intensive care unit admissions drop. About 10,300 people were in ICUs across the nation Tuesday, compared with a January high of more than 30,000, according to CDC data analyzed by The Post.

The lowered tension has allowed some hospitals, which during the winter surge squeezed patients into gift shops and ambulance bays and began preparations to ration care, to resume elective procedures.

At Wisconsin’s Marshfield Clinic Health System, which has locations in rural parts of the state, Chief Medical Officer Bill Melms said administrators reached a point where they were “panicked, to be perfectly honest.” The health system had 155 coronavirus patients in mid-November, accounting for about 40 percent of its capacity.

Fearful of a continued surge, administrators held a meeting to determine what to do if the number went as high as 300. They shuffled workers around their facilities and used administrative staff to help extend the reach of nurses.

“We were just going to have to really push the limits on nurse-to-patient ratios,” Melms said. “We were forced to do whatever we had to do. It was really kind of a crisis situation, and we were having to manage it as such.”

In the end, the number of patients never exceeded 155; the system now counts just 14 coronavirus patients. Still, Melms said he “would not go as far as to say we’re out of the woods,” adding that the variants continue to be a wild card.

“We’re cautiously optimistic, but I wouldn’t be shocked if we experienced another surge,” he said. “It’s a race between the immunizations and the variants right now, as far as I’m concerned.”

As of Wednesday, 62.5 million Americans had received at least one vaccine dose, accounting for 51 percent of the prioritized population and nearly 19 percent of the general population. White House officials touted that progress, with senior coronavirus adviser Andy Slavitt telling reporters, “America leads the world in total vaccinations.”

President Biden said Wednesday that his administration will order 100 million more doses of Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot coronavirus vaccine. The deal has not been finalized and will double the quantity of Johnson & Johnson vaccine available, enough to fully vaccinate 200 million people.

Walensky characterized recent efforts as “a first step, not our final destination” in combating the virus.

“We are at a critical point in this pandemic and on the cusp of having enough vaccine to protect every adult in the United States,” Walensky said. “We are so very close — we can turn the tide on this pandemic.”

Martin reported from Galveston, Tex., and Webner from Georgetown, Tex. Shammas and Diamond reported from Washington. Jacqueline Dupree in Washington contributed to this report.

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