COVID-19 deaths falling but Americans 'must remain vigilant'

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FILE - In this Nov. 19, 2020, file photo, ventilator tubes are attached to a COVID-19 patient at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles. U.S. deaths from COVID-19 are falling again as the nation recovers from the devastating winter surge. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

NEW YORK – U.S. deaths from COVID-19 are falling again as the nation continues to recover from the devastating winter surge, a trend that experts are cautiously hopeful will accelerate as more vulnerable people are vaccinated.

While new coronavirus infections and hospitalizations have plummeted, the decline in deaths from a January peak of about 4,500 hasn't been quite as steep. But, now, after weeks of hovering around 2,000 daily deaths, that figure has dropped to about 1,400 U.S. lives lost each day to coronavirus.

“I am encouraged by these data but we must remain vigilant," Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at Friday's White House briefing.

Public health experts say it's too soon to say, definitively, what’s driving declines since the surge — but they suspect a post-holiday drop in traveling and indoor gatherings, widespread mask wearing and the vaccine rollout have all contributed.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” said Harvard Medical School researcher Jagpreet Chhatwal. “I think a message of optimism is fair.”

Walensky and others worry that a pandemic-weary public will let down its guard too soon. And they're monitoring the spread of worrisome new versions of the virus.

“We’re all desperate to get done with this,” said Jeff Shaman, who studies infectious disease at Columbia University. “We’re not in a place where it’s safe as of yet.”

Health care workers say they've seen it happen before — a crushing wave of illness and death, momentary relief from a drop in COVID-19 cases, and then, another deadly surge. About 531,000 Americans have died since the pandemic began a year ago.