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WASHINGTON – Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned Monday that recent case counts show the number of COVID-19 infections reported nationwide appears to be plateauing “at a very high number.”

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Walensky said CDC data shows that declines in case counts seen across the country since early January “appear to be stalling.”

“The most recent seven-day average of cases, approximately 67,200, represents an increase of a little over 2% compared to the prior seven days,” Walensky said at a news conference with the White House COVID-19 Response Team. “Similarly, the most recent seven-day average of deaths has also increased more than 2% from the previous seven days to nearly 2,000 deaths per day.”

The CDC chief urged people to continue to follow safety measures aimed at curbing the spread of the novel coronavirus, including wearing a well-fitting mask while in public and practicing social distancing.

“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, adding that while she understands the temptation posed by the recent downward trend in cases, “We cannot be resigned to 70,000 cases a day, 2,000 daily deaths.”

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Her comments come as scientists investigate several variants of the novel coronavirus, three of which have been designated “variants of concern,” according to The Associated Press. The concerning variants, first detected in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil, have since spread to several other countries.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, previously said that models currently predict that the variant found in the U.K., B.1.1.7, will be dominant across the U.S. by the end of March. Researchers have said the variant appears to spread more quickly than the original novel coronavirus strain.

“Please hear me clearly: At this level of cases, with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained,” Walensky said Tuesday. “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.”

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She reiterated calls from other health officials urging people to get vaccinated as soon as possible. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has so far authorized three vaccines for emergency use, most recently a one-dose vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson.

“Ultimately, vaccination is what will bring us out of this pandemic,” she said. “To get there, we need to vaccinate many more people.”

As of Monday afternoon, the U.S. continues to lead the world with 28.6 million confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to Johns Hopkins University. The viral infection has claimed more than 513,000 lives nationwide.