The B.1.1.7 variant, first spotted in the UK, is more contagious, may cause more severe disease and is rapidly infecting younger populations, epidemiologist Michael Osterholm told CNN on Tuesday night. Recent research suggests the strain may also be more deadly.

“If we can just hold out, if we can just get enough vaccine between now and the summer, we can actually beat this one,” Osterholm said. “But… we’re impatient.”

The variant has already fueled dangerous increases in other countries.

In France, where health officials warned last month the variant was rapidly spreading, more than 5,000 Covid-19 patients are now in ICUs — for the first time since last April. Turkish officials reported the highest daily case counts since the pandemic’s start, with most of those infections caused by the B.1.1.7 variant. In Canada, the strain has led to more infections and hospitalizations, with officials reporting rising numbers of severe illnesses, including in younger patients.

Health leaders worry the US could be headed in a similar direction — as a big part of the population remains vulnerable the virus. Only around 16.1% of Americans have been fully vaccinated, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The trajectory of the pandemic in the United States looks similar to many other countries in Europe, including Germany, Italy and France looked like just a few weeks ago,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Monday.

“In the United States it’s going to be totally up to how much are we going to open,” said Osterholm, who noted the US is the only country that is easing safety measures while the B.1.1.7 variant is spreading. “In a sense, we’re creating the perfect storm.”

That, Osterholm said, could mean more lives lost.

People wearing masks on a subway car on March 29, 2021 in New York City

Governor says ‘no thank you’ to mask mandate

Health officials including Walensky have urged Americans to keep masking up and have stressed that some states may be opening up too quickly at a critical time.

On Monday, President Joe Biden made a plea to the nation’s leaders to reinstate mask mandates, adding, “this is not politics.”
As Covid-19 numbers rise, the CDC chief says she's scared about where US is headed. But it's not too late to change country's course
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, who lifted all county mask mandates earlier this month, responded through Twitter.
“Let me get this straight – POTUS Biden wants Mississippi to reverse course and reinstate a mask mandate because cases are going up in New York and New Jersey,” Reeves wrote.

“No thank you, Mr. President,” he added.

Also on Tuesday, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced he was lifting the statewide mask mandate, adding that businesses were free to require customers to wear masks.

“I’ve talked to a number of restaurant owners who will continue requiring masks within their restaurant for the safety of their employees and patrons,” the governor said. “Please be respectful and mindful that, while the mask mandate has been lifted, many businesses will continue to require it.”

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey will also move ahead with her plan to end the state’s mask mandate next week, a spokesperson for the governor told CNN this week.

“As Governor Ivey has previously stated, Alabama’s mask mandate ends April 9. We have made progress, and we are moving toward personal responsibility and common sense, not endless government mandates,” spokesperson Gina Maiola said.

More leaders ease restrictions

More leaders also announced they were easing restrictions.

In Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Tuesday that some restrictions — including strict occupancy limits for bars and restaurants — will be eased this week. The state’s mask mandate will remain in place, the governor said, adding that one region of Louisiana has seen an increase in cases and hospitalizations, likely because of the B.1.1.7 variant.

“While COVID-19 and its variants remain a major public health risk, using the tools of vaccination, masking and distancing, we can keep ourselves and our loved ones safe,” Edwards said in a statement.

In California, 13 counties are moving to a less restrictive tier, state health officials said Tuesday. The state has set up a tier system which helps determine how open a county can be based on several metrics, including case rates and positivity rates.

Among those moving to a less restrictive tier are Los Angeles and Orange counties, which will now be designated as having a moderate risk level.

Los Angeles County health officials announced Tuesday that starting April 5, and assuming case numbers don’t go up, several restrictions will be eased.

Bars that don’t provide meals will be allowed to open outdoors with certain safety measures, restaurants will be allowed to increase indoor-dining capacity and movie theaters, retail stores and personal care services can also all increase capacity.

“There is much to be optimistic about,” Barbara Ferrer, the county’s public health director, said in a statement. “However, we cannot let our guard down. Another surge here would be dangerous and stop our recovery progress. We would move swiftly to introduce measures to limit transmission and these measures would have us stepping backwards.”

About half of US seniors fully vaccinated

Experts continue to urge vigilance until enough people can be vaccinated and protected against the virus to suppress its spread.

About 96 million people have received at least one dose of a vaccine — roughly 28.9% of the US population — and about 53.4 million are fully vaccinated, CDC data shows.

All 50 states now have expanded or will expand Covid vaccine eligibility to everyone 16 and up

Just under half of the country’s 65 and older population — 49.8% — are fully vaccinated and more than seven out of 10 seniors in the US have received at least one dose, the data shows.

Older, higher-risk groups were prioritized in the vaccine rollout nationwide. By now, all 50 states have expanded — or planning to expand — vaccine eligibility to everyone 16 and up.

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

Arkansas was the latest state to announce that vaccine eligibility in the state has now expanded to anyone 16 and older.

CNN’s Pierre Bairin Dan Merica, Deidre McPhillips, Sarah Moon, Dave Alsup, Jamiel Lynch and Betsy Klein contributed to this report.

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