CDC: COVID variant means things could get worse before they get better


Some bad news to close out your week. The CDC warned today that the spread of the UK COVID variant in America means it’s likely the number of cases in the U.S. is going to get a lot worse before the distribution of the vaccine can help it get better:

Federal health officials warned on Friday that a far more contagious variant of the coronavirus first identified in Britain could become the dominant source of infection in the United States by March, and would likely lead to a wrenching surge in cases and deaths that would further burden overwhelmed hospitals.

This dire forecast from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made plain what has been suspected for weeks now: The nation is in an urgent race to vaccinate as many Americans as possible before the variant spreads across the country…

Privately, one C.D.C. official said the prospect of the new variant’s prowess was “chilling,” and underscored the urgent need for people to follow precautions.

We’ve had a big surge in cases this winter but if the rollout of the vaccine doesn’t speed up we could have an even bigger surge by March when this new variant becomes the dominant strain. The new strain doesn’t make people any sicker but about 12% of everyone who gets the virus winds up in a hospital, so the more people who catch it the greater the strain on the health system. The basic message from the CDC is that we should get ready for things to get worse:

The experience in the United Kingdom and the B.1.1.7 models presented in this report illustrate the impact a more contagious variant can have on the number of cases in a population. The increased transmissibility of this variant requires an even more rigorous combined implementation of vaccination and mitigation measures (e.g., distancing, masking, and hand hygiene) to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2. These measures will be more effective if they are instituted sooner rather than later to slow the initial spread of the B.1.1.7 variant. Efforts to prepare the health care system for further surges in cases are warranted. Increased transmissibility also means that higher than anticipated vaccination coverage must be attained to achieve the same level of disease control to protect the public compared with less transmissible variants.

All of this will stop if we can just get the vaccine rolling, but the best estimate now is that we’ll be able to vaccinate about one million people a day for the next several months. So in mid-April we’ll have vaccinated substantially less than half the population, which is not nearly enough to reach herd immunity even if you include the people who’ve already had the virus. Realistically, the current estimate is that we could reach herd immunity by this summer.

As COVID-19 immunization speeds up across the U.S., vaccine makers hope the country will reach mass immunization by the summer and be the first country of its size to meet that goal. In a panel at the virtual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference on Wednesday, Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel said that if the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines’ distribution continues to go smoothly, 400 million vaccines will have reached 70% of the U.S. population by the end of the second quarter of 2021. While smaller countries like Israel may reach herd immunity earlier, the timeline would still put the U.S. ahead of some of its peers.

Compared to other countries our size that may not be bad but it still means another six months or more of bad COVID numbers thanks to the more transmissible variant.

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