(CNN/WJZ) — More than 29 million cases have been reported in the US since the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic one year ago today.

The virus plunged America into grief and crisis. Several rounds of violent surges in infections prompted local and state leaders from coast to coast to order safety restrictions — in some cases, curfews — hoping to curb the spread. Waves of Covid-19 patients crippled health care systems. Spikes in deaths drove some communities to call in mobile units to support their morgues.

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The US has lost more than 529,000 people to the virus, Johns Hopkins University data shows. It’s more than the number of Americans killed in World War I and World War II combined. And the death toll is rising by the thousands each week.

On this day one year ago, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a congressional hearing that “things are going to get much worse before they get better.”

“But I did not in my mind think that much worse was going to be 525,000 deaths,” he said Thursday on NBC’s “Today” show.

Now, the country is at a pivotal point.

Case numbers, after plateauing at high levels, may be beginning to decline again, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a White House briefing on Wednesday. Average hospital admissions and Covid-19 deaths were also down over the past week, she added.

“While these trends are starting to head in the right direction, the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths still remain too high and are somber reminders that we must remain vigilant as we work to scale up our vaccination efforts across this country,” Walensky said.

So far, almost one in 10 Americans have been fully vaccinated — a number that is still too low to suppress the spread of the virus. And some experts have warned another possible surge could be weeks away, fueled by a highly contagious variant spreading across the country.

What will help now, while the country works to boost its vaccination numbers, are the precautions that have been touted by officials for months: face masks, social distancing, avoiding crowds, washing hands.

And it’s especially crucial, according to experts, that Americans heed this guidance, even as more governors announce it’s time to begin loosening Covid-19 restrictions and paving the way for a return to normal. Experts have highlighted we’re not there just yet.

“We must continue to use proven prevention measures to slow the spread of Covid-19,” Walensky added. “They are getting us closer to the end of this pandemic.”

Guidance for fully vaccinated people will evolve with more data

For Americans who have been fully vaccinated, the new guidance released by the CDC earlier this week marks a small first step toward a return to pre-pandemic life, the agency’s director and other colleagues wrote in a JAMA Viewpoint article published Wednesday.

“As vaccine supply increases, and distribution and administration systems expand and improve, more and more people will become fully vaccinated and eager to resume their prepandemic lives,” Walensky and CDC officials Drs. Sarah Mbaeyi and Athalia Christie wrote.

“Giving vaccinated people the ability to safely visit their family and friends is an important step toward improved well-being and a significant benefit of vaccination,” they added.

The guidance will evolve as vaccination numbers grow and more data emerges, the officials said, but while many Americans remain unvaccinated, public health precautions are still very important.

“With high levels of community transmission and the threat of SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern, CDC still recommends a number of prevention measures for all people, regardless of vaccination status,” they wrote.

In its new guidance, the agency did not update its travel recommendations: the CDC still says people should delay travel and stay home.

“What we have seen is that we have surges after people start traveling. We saw it after July 4, we saw it after Labor Day, we saw it after the Christmas holidays,” Walensky said in the briefing. “Currently 90% of people are still unprotected and not yet vaccinated. So we are really looking forward to updating this guidance as we have more protection across the communities and across the population.”

More than 2 million shots administered daily

More than 62 million Americans have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, CDC data shows. Roughly 32.9 million are fully vaccinated. In Maryland, 1,653,670 doses of the vaccine were administered.

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And for more than a week, the country’s seven-day average of doses administered has been above two million per day.

Pfizer CEO Dr. Albert Bourla, in an open letter marking the one-year anniversary of the WHO pandemic declaration, celebrated “a sense that liberation is on the horizon,” bolstered in part by “encouraging real-world data about our vaccine coming out of Israel and other countries.”

But Bourla, warned, “we are not out of the woods,” stressing the need to remain “vigilant in the coming months” as the company continues to research antiviral therapies, the impact of boosters on variants, and how its vaccine performs in children and those who are pregnant.

As vaccination numbers climb, more state leaders are loosening the requirements for who can get a shot.

In Indiana, teachers and childcare workers can get vaccinated starting Monday, according to Dr. Lindsay Weaver, the chief medical officer with the state’s health department.

The state has also added several high-risk conditions to the list of eligible comorbidities, including early childhood conditions that are carried into adulthood, and Weaver added the state plans incrementally expand vaccine eligibility next to those 40-49 years old.

At least 47 states plus DC are allowing teachers and school staff to receive Covid-19 vaccines. By next Monday, teachers will be eligible in all 50 states.

In Georgia, officials announced the state will expand its vaccine eligibility starting March 15 to include people 55 and older as well as individuals with disabilities and certain medical conditions.

“Provided supply allows, vaccine eligibility is expected to open to all adults in April,” Gov. Brian Kemp’s office said in a statement.

Other states also announced expanded vaccine eligibility this week, including Alaska, who took it the furthest by making vaccines available to everyone living or working in the state who is at least 16. It’s the first state in the nation to do so.

Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine is the only one available for use by people who are 16 or older, while the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are both restricted to people 18 or older.

New guidance on nursing homes

New guidance for nursing homes to safely expand visitation was also released this week.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services issued the guidance in collaboration with the CDC and reported that more than 3 million vaccine doses have so far been administered in nursing homes.

The guidance allows for indoor visitation regardless of the vaccination status of the resident or visitor, with some exceptions.

For example, visitations may be limited for residents with Covid-19 or who are in quarantine or for unvaccinated residents living in facilities where less than 70% of residents are fully vaccinated, in a county that has a Covid-19 positivity rate greater than 10%.

The guidance says that “compassionate care” visits — including visits for residents whose health may have sharply declined — should be allowed at all times.

Facilities, residents and families are still recommended to maintain physical distancing and try to make visitations outdoors if possible.

“CMS recognizes the psychological, emotional and physical toll that prolonged isolation and separation from family have taken on nursing home residents, and their families,” CMS Chief Medical Officer Dr. Lee Fleisher said in a statement.

“That is why, now that millions of vaccines have been administered to nursing home residents and staff, and the number of COVID cases in nursing homes has dropped significantly, CMS is updating its visitation guidance to bring more families together safely.”

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