Signs of life amid signs of concern in the second year of the coronavirus pandemic

Cellphone mobility data analyzed by The Washington Post show movement steadily increasing everywhere except in large cities, where office buildings remain empty. In the Deep South states of Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi, and in the northern tier of the Mountain West, mobility is already higher than before the pandemic.

The pandemic is in its second year, and it won’t last forever. But even as people are on the move, so is the virus.

There is increasing evidence of a spring bump, if not yet anything as significant as a surge. Positive trends in coronavirus infections went flat in mid-March and have since ticked upward nationally, with daily infections now hovering near 58,000. Thirty-two states have had an increase in their average for daily infections, according to a Post analysis of state health department data.

In Michigan, infections have risen 109 percent in recent weeks. Minnesota has registered a 55 percent increase, and West Virginia 53 percent.

The most promising recent trend was the decline in hospitalizations. But the decline has slowed and shows signs of flattening. And although the seven-day average for deaths is much lower than it was a month ago, dropping to fewer than 1,000 daily, the decline in those numbers has also slowed.

“I continue to be worried about the latest data and the apparent stall that we see in the trajectory of the pandemic,” Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Wednesday, reiterating her standard message that everyone needs to hang in there just a bit longer and stick with precautions known to limit viral transmission.

That message may be getting lost amid other, more hopeful signals coming from political leaders, including the White House, where President Biden has vowed that everyone will be eligible for a vaccine by May 1. This past weekend, more than 3  million people received immunizations each day, and more than 85 million people — about 1 in 3 adults — have received at least one shot.

Administration officials are calling attention to what they consider their success in rolling out vaccines, noting that 70 percent of people older than 65 have had at least one dose. Age matters in this pandemic: Inoculations of the most vulnerable populations could fundamentally change the nature of the health emergency, because older adults are most susceptible to serious illness or death from covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

A more transmissible and dangerous coronavirus variant first seen in the United Kingdom is already dominant in some states and could become so nationally in coming weeks, according to new data suggesting that the mutant variant is outcompeting other virus strains. The B.1.1.7 variant may already account for 20 to 30 percent of new infections, according to the CDC. Data from the testing company Helix suggests that it could be higher already, about 40 percent, in states that rely on Helix’s tests.

It is probably already dominant in Florida and will become so in Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey and New York any day now, Nathan Grubaugh, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health, said this week. Grubaugh is the senior author of a report, not yet published in a peer-reviewed journal, that models the transmission of B.1.1.7.

“Anyplace where we have data, we’re seeing an exponential rise in frequency,” he said. “It’s certainly going to be the dominant virus that’s circulating in the United States.”

‘I want to be free’

Numerous states, led by governors of both major political parties, are easing restrictions on gatherings. Republican governors led the way, but in Virginia, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam will allow stadiums to fill to 30 percent capacity starting April 1. In Michigan, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has eased restrictions despite a sharp increase in cases there.

With viral transmission, mutations and vaccinations in flux, the pandemic in the United States has reached an unpredictable phase in which human behavior may be the most incalculable variable. And people are not operating by a singular playbook. Some never took the virus seriously. Others remain hypervigilant.

In interviews at locations nationwide, people in recent days have expressed a range of sentiments, from continued fear of infection to relief that the end of the pandemic is in sight.

On Monday, Ana Gomez, 47, arrived at the Las Vegas Convention Center hoping to receive her first vaccine dose, only to be told that the daily allotment had run out. Gomez, a customer service representative, lost two relatives to covid-19, including an aunt who was among the first in her family to emigrate from Mexico to the United States 50 years ago.

Gomez caught a mild case, experiencing shortness of breath. She has since recovered but remains on leave from work.

“I really want to get back to work,” she said. “I want to be free.”

‘A substantial toll’

Tens of millions of people are not ready to start socializing again — including many who are fully vaccinated but remain unsure about their safety. For them, the return to normal life may be a journey of baby steps.

The CDC has issued guidance on what vaccinated people can do, but that has not eased lingering doubts and uncertainties among people who have endured a global trauma that has killed millions of people, including more than 546,000 in the United States. Surveys show that more than 1 in 3 adults in this country reported sleeplessness or anxiety in the past week.

“We each have to come to terms with the level of risk that we are willing to accept,” said Joshua A. Gordon, director of the National Institute of Mental Health. “People at one extreme or the other probably need some help to move toward the middle.”

In the White House coronavirus briefing Wednesday, Walensky addressed the lingering psychological effects of the crisis.

“The pandemic has had a profound effect on our mental well-being. Stress, uncertainty, fear, isolation, all can take — and have taken — a substantial toll,” she said.

She urged people to return safely to some pre-pandemic activities.

“Connect with people, take a walk, safely connect with a friend, connect with or check in on a neighbor,” she said. “Take breaks from the news and social media. While it’s good to be informed, hearing about the pandemic all day every day can be upsetting.”

‘Rays of positivity’

In Detroit, restrictions on indoor dining and bars have been loosened in the last month. Warmer weather and a sense of optimism have taken hold, and people are emerging from their homes.

“It’s been very surreal and a little refreshing to see,” said Khaila Rucker, 21, who was visiting the Detroit Institute of Arts on Sunday. “We all kind of have been a little crushed with the restrictions.”

Whitmer has allowed restaurants and bars to reopen for indoor dining, at 50 percent capacity. The governor also announced that outdoor arenas could operate at 20 percent capacity, with the update coming just in time for the Detroit Tigers to host more than 8,000 fans for their home-season opener, an event that typically draws celebrations throughout the city.

In February, Michigan allowed high school sports such as wrestling and basketball to resume, with masks required during play and social distancing rules for teams and spectators. High school sports have since become a main source of outbreaks in the state’s K-12 school system.

Signs of life have slowly returned during the past week to downtown Detroit, desolate for much of the winter as many of the city’s office buildings remained empty during the day with workers clocking in from home and with capacity restrictions placed on restaurants, bars and sports stadiums.

Small pods of people of all ages are taking advantage of the still-empty streets and sidewalks to trundle around on rental scooters, laughing as they zip by Art Deco office buildings and city parks. On a recent night, outdoor dining spots filled with diners, and a bride-to-be wearing a white dress and walking barefoot carried her shoes as she crossed the street with a pack of girlfriends.

Amid warming temperatures, a steady stream of patrons filtered last weekend into Queens Bar, where crowds spiked during the past week, to the point that the downtown bar had to turn away customers.

“Since it’s been warmer, it’s giving people literal rays of positivity,” said Sam Quarles, wearing a black dress with pink flowers while working behind the bar at the neighborhood spot Monday evening. The 30-year-old sported a bandage after receiving her first coronavirus shot earlier in the day at a mass-vaccination clinic.

An unmasked patron entered with his friends Monday. Quarles quickly grabbed a surgical mask from under the bar and seamlessly handed it to the customer before taking orders.

The fears that remain

In Ocean Grove, N.J., Jean Bredin, 79, said she has never been scared of contracting the coronavirus or passing it to her 100-year-old mother, whom she visits in Rutherford, N.J., every weekend. She hasn’t been to the movies or played bingo, but has continued thrift-store shopping.

Even when the pandemic is declared over, she figures, it will be a while before people feel comfortable touching one another.

“After a year of six feet apart, we’ve become like robots,” she said. “One year of ‘keep away’ isn’t going to disappear overnight.”

Frank Mauro, 66, a roofing contractor in Highlands, N.J., lost his 88-year-old mother on Christmas Eve to covid-19. Two weeks later, he lost his younger brother, Louis.

He’s still apprehensive about this virus.

“I’m not for loosening up the restrictions. I think they should stay until we really do know what’s what out here. There’s variants, now there’s children getting it,” Mauro said.

‘A shot in the arm’

In Las Vegas, March Madness has been an economic boon. Thousands of gamblers surged into casinos last weekend to place bets on the NCAA basketball tournament games. The governor eased casino capacity limits: Fifty percent is allowed — but masks required.

“This is a shot in the arm, no pun intended,” exulted Jay Kornegay, vice president of the SuperBook at Westgate Las Vegas, the city’s largest sportsbook.

Millennials lined up outside the popular Commonwealth bar. In downtown Vegas, people walked shoulder-to-shoulder through the glitzy entertainment strip called the Fremont Street Experience. There appears to be much less adherence to social distancing guidelines.

Basketball fans at Red Rock Resort erupted with a roar when Oral Roberts University knocked off Ohio State in a first round NCAA matchup. They packed the Stadium Swim pool at downtown’s Circa Resort & Casino, catching games on massive outdoor screens. Even locals are letting up their guard. At Sunset Park, fishermen angled for rainbow trout, children flew kites and volleyballers set up for spikes.

Some people wore masks, some didn’t, some simply kept a mask poised well below their nose and mouth.

Slattery reported from Las Vegas, Ruble from Detroit and Chesler from New Jersey. Scott Clement, Jacqueline Dupree and Dan Keating contributed to this report.

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