A critical moment in the COVID fight for Florida and the country | Editorial
With infections increasing, Americans need to hold on to the finish line.
President Joe Biden speaks about COVID-19 vaccinations and response in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus on Monday in Washington as Vice President Kamala Harris listens. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Joe Biden speaks about COVID-19 vaccinations and response in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus on Monday in Washington as Vice President Kamala Harris listens. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) [ EVAN VUCCI ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published March 31, 2021|Updated March 31, 2021

After a year in various stages of lockdown, Americans are understandably anxious to get on with their lives. But the White House was right Monday to plead for the nation’s continued patience, as America enters a delicate phase, with infections increasing even as the supply of coronavirus vaccine is becoming more available across the country.

These two very different pictures — of rising infections and more vaccinations — underscore both the perils and promise of the coming weeks. Cases of the virus are up about 10 percent over the past week from the previous week, to about 60,000 cases per day nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. After declining for weeks, cases leveled off and now 24 states are reporting an increase in infections. The daily average for the last two weeks is nearly 19 percent above the figure from the two weeks before. Hospitalizations and deaths are ticking up, too. Experts fear that new variants could spark a potential fourth surge as states like Florida, Texas and others continue to relax public restrictions. Spring break and the upcoming summer vacation season have also reignited the interest of Americans to travel.

The numbers in Florida and the Tampa Bay area are part of this concerning trend. Florida’s weekly average case count has been increasing for days. The weekly death average has also increased to about 76 people reported dead per day. And more tests in Florida are coming back positive. Across Tampa Bay, new cases and the rate of positive tests are also growing, with notable increases in Hillsborough and Sarasota counties. This is a national problem with local implications, and everyone must do their part to keep the situation from worsening.

To that end, President Joe Biden and Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC director, sent the right message Monday by warning Americans not to drop their guard prematurely. Officials fear the U.S. could follow Europe into another spike if Americans start abandoning masks, social distancing and other safety measures of the last year. “If we let our guard down now, we can see the virus getting worse, not better,” Biden said from the White House. “People are letting up on precautions, which is a very bad thing.”

While Biden appealed to governors and local officials to reinstate mask-wearing and other precautions, he also sounded an encouraging note. He announced that by mid-April at least 90 percent of the adult U.S. population would be eligible for vaccination — and would have access to a vaccination site within 5 miles of their home. The White House also moved to double the number of pharmacies participating in the federal inoculation effort, and announced the expected delivery this week of 11 million doses of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which many Americans value for its convenience.

The key in the next several weeks is to stay ahead of new infections as the vaccination program ramps up even more. That’ll be made easier as states move to inoculate younger residents; Floridians 40 years and older became eligible this week. But it also requires adhering to practices that have worked the past year, from wearing masks in public and social distancing to limiting gathering in large groups. It’s senseless to lose ground with the goal line in sight.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.