(WASHINGTON) — As the U.S. sees its first notable decline in COVID-19 metrics in more than three months, with coronavirus-related hospital admissions and average daily new cases dropping by more than 30% over the last month, Dr. Anthony Fauci says the country is making progress against the current surge, but warned we’re not out of the woods yet during an interview on ABC’s This Week.

“We certainly are turning the corner on this particular surge, Jon,” the nation’s top infectious disease expert told This Week co-anchor Jonathan Karl on Sunday. “But we have experienced over now close to 20 months surges that go up and then come down, and then go back up again. The way to keep it down, to make that turnaround continue to go down, is to do what we mentioned: Get people vaccinated.”

“When you have 70 million people in the country who are eligible to be vaccinated, who are not yet vaccinated, that’s the danger zone right there,” he added. “So it’s within our capability to make sure that that turnaround that we’re seeing — that very favorable and optimistic turnaround — continues to go down and doesn’t do what we’ve seen multiple times before, where it goes down and then it comes back up.”

Despite the positive signs, the U.S. also marked a grim milestone this week in the pandemic, surpassing 700,000 deaths from COVID-19 on Friday, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

“This is the most formidable virus,” Fauci said, reflecting on the staggering death toll.

“There are certain elements about this that were just unavoidable, in the sense that there were going to be deaths, there were going to be a lot of infections globally, no matter what anyone did. But there were situations where we could have done better, and we can do better, and I think we’re living through that right now,” Fauci said, again pointing to eligible Americans who have not gotten vaccinated.

“When you say ‘Are some of those deaths avoidable?’ They certainly are. In fact, looking forward now, most of the deaths could be avoidable if we get people vaccinated,” he said.

One state taking action to increase vaccinations is California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a new requirement for all eligible students in the state to get vaccinated without a testing opt-out.

While some parents have expressed their outrage over the move, Fauci argued that the requirements are really nothing new.

“I have been and I still am in favor of these kinds of mandates. You can make some exceptions to them, but in general, people look at this like this is something novel and new, when in fact, throughout, you know, years and years, decades, we have made it a requirement for children to get into schools to get different types of vaccines — measles, mumps, rubella and others,” he said.

“So when people treat this as something novel and terrible — it isn’t. A requirement for children to come to school, to be vaccinated with certain vaccines, is not something new. It’s been around for a very long time,” Fauci continued.

While increasing vaccinations remain the priority for the Biden administration, Fauci also noted the positive preliminary results of a new antiviral drug from the pharmaceutical company Merck, which showed it could lower the risk for hospitalization or death for someone infected with COVID by 50%.

Fauci stressed the drug would “absolutely not” be a replacement for getting vaccinated but said the future implementation of the drug held a lot of promise.

“It’s a big deal, Jon, I mean you have now a small molecule drug that can be given orally,” he said, “and the results of the trial that we just announced yesterday and the day before, are really quite impressive.”

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