Why Ashish Jha says he’s worried about where COVID-19 infections stand in the United States

Dr. Ashish Jha is raising concerns that the number of COVID-19 infections in the United States appears to have stopped declining after a previous downward trend. 

The dean of the Brown University School of Public Health wrote on Twitter that the country is still seeing an average of 50,000 new coronavirus cases daily — the same number seen at the height of the surge last summer. 

The doctor said he suspects that greater circulation of the more transmissible virus variant B.1.1.7, first detected in the United Kingdom, is behind the halt in nation’s downward infection trends, coupled with many states moving forward with lifting coronavirus restrictions. 

“This is a problem,” Jha wrote on Twitter. 

Joseph Allen, an associate professor and the director of the Healthy Buildings program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, wrote on Twitter that the stall Jha pointed to at the national level is evident in Boston’s wastewater data going back weeks. Cambridge-based Biobot Analytics, which conducts testing for coronavirus in the wastewater at the Deer Island treatment plant, has found the amount of virus detected correlates with new cases being diagnosed four to 10 days later. 

When it comes to tracking the outbreak, another issue Jha identified is that the national data misses underlying trends in states. 

The doctor stressed that a month ago, every state was seeing declining rates, but as of Wednesday, 15 states were reporting more cases than they saw two weeks prior and 19 are seeing higher positive test rates. 

“Even hospitalizations are inching up in some places,” he wrote. “Not a surprise. B.1.1.7 probably represents about 40% of infections in U.S. today. Means about 20,000 infections identified today were likely from B.1.1.7. It will become the dominant variant in [the] next couple of weeks.”

Jha said the concern is that as the more contagious variant spreads and becomes dominant, it will drive up spikes in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, which has occurred in Europe

The two ways of keeping the same situation from happening in the United States is to “keep vaccinating and fast” and leave COVID-19 restrictions in place for “a few more weeks.”

“We are doing the first, not the second,” Jha said. “Every high risk person should be able to get a vaccine by mid to late April. That’s so close. Every infection that kills someone today is a person who would get vaccinated in the [next] few weeks. So we have to keep public health restrictions in place for a tiny bit longer.”

He urged officials not to relax indoor mask mandates, allow a return to full restaurants and bars, or cut back on testing. 

Massachusetts is set to move into the first step of its final reopening phase on Monday, allowing large venues — including Fenway Park, Gillette Stadium, and TD Garden — to reopen with a 12 percent capacity limit.

“We are still at a high level of infection,” Jha said. “We have stopped declining. Am I sure we’ll see cases rise? No, but worried. Let’s finish vaccinating high risk folks. Then smartly relax public health measures. That will allow us to enjoy what should be a great summer.”


Get Boston.com’s e-mail alerts:

Sign up and receive coronavirus news and breaking updates, from our newsroom to your inbox.