The head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doubled down Monday on her warnings against rolling back COVID-19 restrictions at the state level, while Gov. Charlie Baker expressed confidence that his plan to loosen economic reopening rules is "appropriate" at the current juncture.
On the same day that CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky again urged governors and state leaders not to ease up on limits designed to keep the highly infectious virus at bay, Baker defended the "balancing act" behind his decision.
Both Walensky and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci have said in recent days that moving too fast to ease limits could undo progress in the national effort to limit transmission.
Asked about Fauci's comments, Baker said 1.2 million Massachusetts residents have received first doses of the vaccine and 550,000 have received second doses, many of whom are among the groups most vulnerable to COVID-19. The state's hospitalization rate, case counts and daily case rates have all gone down over the past month, too.
"We felt, based on that data and the success of the vaccine rollout so far, that it was appropriate to make some adjustments," Baker said. "Now, the adjustments we made that are effective today basically go back to where we were last fall before the second surge, and we'll continue to review the data every day and every week, and if we see stuff in the data that concerns us, we'll make adjustments again. But I think it's important for everybody to understand that this is a constant balancing act, and I think for us, at this point in time based on the data, it made sense to make some adjustments with respect to reopening."
The capacity limits at businesses across Massachusetts rose from 40% to 50% effective Monday, and several sectors such as indoor performance venues and recreational activities are now allowed to reopen.
Restaurants no longer face a percent-based capacity limit but must enforce six feet of social distancing, limit tables to six patrons, and allow a maximum of 90 minutes per visit. They will also be allowed to host musical performances.
When he announced the shift on Thursday, Baker also set a target for additional reopening later in March, which will allow large venues with more than 5,000 seats to bring back 12% of guests.
Walensky, who led Massachusetts General Hospital's Division of Infectious Diseases before being tapped to helm the CDC, said Monday that she is worried about a "potential shift in the trajectory of the pandemic."
After a period of steady decline in new cases, Walensky said national data show infections leveling off at a high plateau. The most recent seven-day average of 67,200 newly confirmed cases is about 2% higher than the previous seven days, she said.
"With these new statistics, I am really worried about reports that more states are rolling back the exact public health measures we have recommended to protect people from COVID-19," Walensky said. "I understand the temptation to do this. Seventy thousand cases a day seemed good compared to where we were just a few months ago. But we cannot be resigned to 70,000 cases a day, 2,000 daily deaths."
The growing presence of newer COVID-19 strains, which experts believe can spread more easily, further complicates the picture.
"Please hear me clearly: At this level of cases, with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained," said Walensky, who also cautioned against loosening restrictions on Friday. "These variants are a very real threat to our people and our progress. Now is not the time to relax the critical safeguards that we know can stop the spread of COVID-19 in our communities, not when we are so close."