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‘Now is not the time to relax restrictions:’ CDC chief Walensky sounds alarm on ‘stalling’ progress in pandemic

Dr. Rochelle Walensky.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images via Bloomberg

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sounded the alarm Friday over what she described as potentially stalling progress in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, noting that fast-spreading variants of the virus are becoming more prevalent in the United States.

Speaking at a White House briefing on Friday, Walensky said the stall threatens to erase progress the US has made in recent weeks in decreasing cases and hospitalizations, even as the rollout of lifesaving vaccines ramps up.

Walensky said the number of new cases has been increasing in the past three days, compared with the prior week. She also shared new estimates that suggest the more-transmissible U.K. coronavirus variant now makes up about 10 percent of US cases.

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“We at CDC consider this a very concerning shift in the trajectory,” Walensky said. “It’s important to remember where we are in the pandemic. Things are tenuous. Now is not the time to relax restrictions.”

Walensky’s comments came a day after Governor Charlie Baker laid out a plan that would dramatically ease coronavirus restrictions in Massachusetts by the end of March, allowing fans to return to sports venues and easing capacity restrictions and gathering limits.

“We would not be here making this announcement if we didn’t think we had seen, for . . . almost two months now, positive trends on cases and hospitalizations,” Baker said at his announcement Thursday.

But Walensky, the former head of infectious diseases at Mass General, on Friday signaled that it was too soon to ease restrictions and urged the public to allow for more time in vaccinating people.

“We may be done with the virus, but clearly the virus is not done with us. We cannot get comfortable or give in to a false sense of security that the worst of the pandemic is behind us, not now, not when mass vaccination is so very close,” she said.

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Baker’s office on Friday pointed to falling cases and hospitalization rates in Massachusetts.

“Massachusetts has made significant progress in the fight against COVD-19, with case numbers and hospitalizations steadily declining and vaccination rates increasing, and the Baker-Polito Administration is taking additional steps to safely reopen the Commonwealth’s economy,” deputy communications director Anisha Chakrabarti said in a statement. “The Administration is carefully monitoring all public health data as the Commonwealth continues to move through the phased reopening process.”

The US has seen a dramatic fall in new COVID-19 cases since the peak of the current surge in the first weeks of January. But in recent days, new cases have stopped falling, and have ticked up slightly. The US on Thursday logged 75,565 new cases, according to the COVID Tracking Project, which is down from a staggering high of 295,121 new cases on Jan. 8, but much higher than last summer’s lows. Walensky stressed that health officials were monitoring the situation closely to see if it’s a data blip or something more.

Worries about a new surge from more highly transmissible strains of the coronavirus have escalated in recent days as yet another variant was identified in the US, this time in New York City. This variant, called B.1.526, carries a concerning mutation that may make vaccines less effective, the New York Times reported.

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In her remarks Friday, Walensky pointed to widespread, rapid vaccination as the best chance to overcome the pandemic in the months ahead.

“Give us time. We need to get more vaccines into our to communities,” she said. “This is our path out.”


Christina Prignano can be reached at christina.prignano@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @cprignano.