“We’re really in the eye of the hurricane right now,” Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told Yahoo Finance Live. “We’ve been through the front wall. The past year has been dramatic and traumatic.”
The U.S. has seen more than 29 million cases of COVID-19 so far, with over 525,000 deaths. However, the 7-day moving average has been steadily declining as more Americans get vaccinated. That average was 57,400 as of Wednesday, a 16% drop from two weeks prior, according to New York Times data.
And as of Tuesday, 43,000 people in the U.S. were hospitalized with coronavirus, in stark contrast to a peak of 141,000 at the beginning of the year, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data analyzed by the Washington Post. But those numbers could creep back up, Osterholm pointed out.
“While we’re feeling this good feeling right now, which we should, in the sense that the case numbers have dropped precipitously, hospitalizations have dropped,” Osterholm said, “we’ve seen this play before where cases have gone up very high and then come back down, then gone back up again.”
The British variant
Three different COVID-19 vaccines are available to the public, and the U.S. has vaccinated 19.3% of the population with at least one dose of a vaccine. Still, two of those vaccines require a second dose, and only 10.2% of the country remains fully vaccinated, according to CDC data updated on Thursday.
The rollout may not be able to outrun the pace of a mutant strain of the virus, the British variant known as B117. It’s expected to become the most dominant strain over the next few months.
“The B117 variant in and of itself, which first started spreading in Europe, is showing its head now here,” Osterholm said. “We’re very concerned that it could cause a surge in cases over the course of the next six to 12 weeks. Vaccines are coming, but there won’t be enough here in the next six to 12 weeks to really blunt that B117 surge.”
At the beginning of the year, 1% to 2% of cases in the U.S. were attributed to the British variant. That number has since shot up to 20% in some parts of the country, according to data from Helix, a lab testing company, cited by The New York Times.
“While we can’t say for certain what it’s going to do in terms of just how many cases, it’s going to cause substantial transmission issues,” Osterholm said.
‘Literally walking into the mouth of the virus monster’
Luckily, the vaccines from Pfizer (PFE), Moderna (MRNA), and Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) have all shown to be effective against the B117 strain, though all three companies are exploring potential booster shots.
The problem, however, is those who haven’t been vaccinated yet, which Osterholm said is his main concern along with those individuals being exposed in places where restrictions have been lifted, like Texas and Connecticut. Osterholm criticized these moves.
“They’re literally walking into the mouth of the virus monster,” Osterholm said. “They are. I can’t put it any other way. It makes no sense whatsoever. They’re putting people in harm’s way, and we don’t have that much longer to go. That’s the whole point of it. Do you want to be the person that died from COVID when you were just days from getting your vaccine? No.”
“So just hold out,” he added. “Continue to do the things you’ve been doing to get you this far and not get infected. And then, by May, when you have your vaccine, we’re going to be in a very, very different situation. And that’s what we’re all trying to get to.”
According to the Biden administration, it’s anticipated that vaccines will be widely available to the general public by the end of May into the beginning of the summer, sooner than some experts had initially anticipated.
“I keep coming back to the one mantra: Get vaccinated,” Osterholm said. “It could be a very, very different day if we see a large segment of our population vaccinated by May. It even takes a whole new twist on whether you go into bars or restaurants with lots of people around you. You don’t want to put yourself where there’s a lot of the virus — you want to protect yourself until then.”
Adriana Belmonte is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. You can follow her on Twitter @adrianambells and reach her at email@example.com.