US hospital admittances have been declining for three weeks in a positive sign for the world's deadliest coronavirus outbreak, while the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) keep an eye on the spread of Covid-19 variants.
The Covid Tracking Project reported about 104,000 Covid patients in US hospitals on Thursday, down from a peak of more than 130,000 Covid hospitalisations on multiple days in early January.
Hospital admittances are often a signifier that further deaths may follow, making the decline a positive for the US, which has seen the daily death toll hover around 4,000 throughout the month of January.
In New York state, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared on Friday, "the holiday surge is over."
He announced that New York City's infection rate was lower than 5 per cent for the first time this year. Still, The New York Times reported about 30 city zip codes have seven-day average infection rates at 10 per cent, while hospital admittances in the city are still at numbers not seen since May 2020.
Nevertheless, Mr Cuomo said indoor dining in New York City could reopen at 25 per cent capacity starting February 14. This follows a similar decision made by California to lift stay-at-home orders after the state suffered a deadly surge in Los Angeles County.
"There are possible scenarios that could develop that are problematic,” Mr Cuomo said at the Friday morning briefing, and added that the decision could be reversed if necessary.
Indoor dining was banned in March last year, when New York City became the global epicentre for the pandemic.
Outdoor dining was later allowed starting in the summer, which provided much-needed business for restaurants and bars on the brink of closure. Limited indoor dining was reintroduced in September and halted in December before a holiday surge.
“We’re in an uncertain situation because of the new variants, because we don’t yet have the supply of the vaccine we should, but I also know that folks are trying to make a livelihood, to save their businesses,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a Friday briefing. “The whole idea here is to strike the right balance.”
There are worries that the "variants of concern", which is how the World Health Organisation has labelled new viral strains from Brazil, the UK and South Africa, could propel further infections in the US.
The UK variant has already been detected in New York state.
Two cases of the South African variant were confirmed in South Carolina on Thursday, with the patients having no connection to each other, suggesting uncontrolled and undetected spread.
"I think one of the concerning things is that we know these two people did not know one another and that they did not travel to South Africa so the presumption is, at this point, that there has been community spread of this strain," Centres for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said Friday morning in an interview on the Today Show on NBC.
One case of the Brazilian variant was discovered in Minnesota this week, while the UK variant has been confirmed in more than two dozen states in the US, according to the centre. It is difficult to know exactly how many cases there are, as the country is lacking a robust surveillance programme.
Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious diseases specialist, believes the UK variant will become the dominant strain of Covid-19 in the US sometime in late March or early April.
California health experts are investigating the possibility of a local variant, L452R, in the southern part of the state.
Mutations of viruses and the creation of variants are normal and most of them do not pose a threat. These "variants of concern", however, have been found to be more transmissible and research is ongoing into their mortality rates.
Vaccinations could help prevent possible threats from Covid variants, though the vaccine distribution programme in the US has been a slow and rocky process.
The New York Times reports at least 1.3 per cent of Americans have been fully vaccinated, while over 6 per cent have received their first dose.
The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have been approved for use in the US.
More than 430,000 people in the US have died from Covid-19, according to Johns Hopkins University. January will be the deadliest month for the country in the entire pandemic.
The Covid Tracking Project recorded two days of more than 4,000 daily deaths this week alone.
Projections by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington say the US will surpass half a million deaths by late February.
The institute also predicted in its projections for the death toll through May that the further spread of Covid variants could contribute to as many as 25,000 additional deaths.