People wait in line around the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on the west side of Midtown Manhattan to receive a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine that was converted into a mass vaccination center in New York on March 2 . 2021.
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The U.S. is at “critical juncture” in its response to the coronavirus pandemic as highly communicable variants threaten to overturn the nation’s progress within weeks, even if more vaccines find their way into Americans, senior health officials warned Wednesday .
The emergence of the new variants largely coincided with the sharp decline in daily new cases in the US since January, but those numbers have stalled since then.
The highly contagious variant, first identified in the UK and known as B.1.1.7, “is poised to hijack the nation’s success,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on Wednesday.
“So much can change in the next few weeks,” said Walensky at a Covid-19 briefing in the White House. “How that works is up to us. The next three months are crucial.”
The USA reported a daily average of around 65,422 new cases in the past week. This is a decrease from the high of nearly 250,000 cases per day the US reported in January. This comes from a CNBC analysis of the data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
However, the number of new infections every day is still higher than the rate the US reported in the summer when the virus was spread through the American sun belt. Covid-19 cases are increasing more than 5% in 14 states, down from just two states a week ago.
CDC researchers published a study on Jan. 15 that predicted that strain B.1.1.7 would be the predominant strain in the U.S. by mid to late March. Health officials have since warned that the variants could reverse the current downward trend in infections in the US and delay the nation’s recovery from the pandemic.
“Now, more than ever, we have to do everything we can to stop the virus from spreading,” said Walensky.
Other variants threaten
Variant B.1.1.7, presented for the first time in Great Britain, is not the only burden for medical experts.
The Chief Medical Officer of the White House, Dr. Anthony Fauci noted on Wednesday that variant B.1.351, first identified in South Africa, could reduce the effectiveness of the vaccine “moderately to severely” and variant P.1 found in Brazil could evade antibodies generated by previous infections or vaccinations .
There are also new varieties that have been discovered in the United States. Preliminary reports show that variant B.1.427 found in California may be more transmissible than previous strains, Fauci said.
The infectious disease expert said earlier this week that US officials are also taking variant B.1.526 found in New York “very seriously,” increasing the possibility that it could escape protection from antibody treatments and vaccines.
Fauci reiterated that vaccines should continue to protect against the disease, and drug makers are working on booster doses to combat the mutations that are occurring. Clinical trials for a booster shot of Moderna against the B.1.351 variant are slated to begin in mid-March, he said.
While the US may see a further increase in variant B.1.1.7 in the future, Dr. Celine Gounder, a former member of President Joe Biden’s Covid Advisory Board, told CNBC that she was more concerned about variants B.1.351 or P.1 further mutating and reducing the effectiveness of the vaccines currently in use in preventing hospitalizations and death.
“If you let the B.1.351 or the P.1 mutate further where it is no longer covered by the vaccine, and you have a window in which we do not yet have the updated vaccine available, we could find ourselves in a difficult place are in the fall, “said Gounder in a telephone interview.
Covid fatigue sets in
The variations aren’t the only problem. Covid fatigue is gaining ground and fewer people are sticking to recommended public health measures needed to contain the spread of the virus, Walensky said.
Despite recent warnings from the Biden administration, some states have pushed ahead with reopening as cases fall and more vaccines are given. Texas and Mississippi announced Tuesday that they would fully reopen their states and not meet their mask requirements.
“I would still encourage individuals to wear a mask, distance themselves socially, and do the right thing to protect their own health,” Walensky said on Wednesday.
In New York, major sports arenas have been allowed to return with the required tests, and restaurants in New York City have resumed indoor dining with limited capacity.
New York reports an average of around 7,399 new Covid-19 cases per day. This is the lowest daily number of cases the state has seen since early December, but it’s almost on par when Governor Andrew Cuomo shut down the city’s indoor dining in December.
On Wednesday, Cuomo noted during a press conference that Covid-19 state hospital stays “fell to below pre-peak levels” in December amid the holidays.
Gounder, a professor of medicine at New York University, said it was “premature” for New York to reopen indoor dining.
“I think it was very unwise to reopen restaurants that are basically the most risky public places right now,” said Gounder.