A funeral bell tolled at the Washington National Cathedral 400 times Tuesday, once for every thousand Americans who have died of Covid-19 in the United States.
As the numbers climb, health experts and officials have turned their attention to mitigating the impacts of the new variant that has sparked alarm, and they are calling for ramped up vaccinations and preventative measures.
The count of people in the US who have died from the virus rose rapidly over the course of the last year to reach Tuesday’s grim 400,000 marker. And while the rate of new cases has dipped recently, experts warn that a variant of the virus could send cases surging once again.
“I worry desperately in the next six to 12 weeks we’re going to see a situation with this pandemic unlike anything we’ve seen yet to date,” said Michael Osterholm, a coronavirus adviser to President-elect Joe Biden and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “This will happen, we are going to see a major increase in cases, the challenge is how many,” he told CNN on Tuesday
When President-elect Joe Biden’s administration takes office, Osterholm said it will do everything it can to bolster distribution. But, he said, “we can’t make the vaccine go much faster than it is right now,” adding that officials will need to plan for dramatic action to keep the variant under control.
“The difference is going to be, ‘Are we going to react now or later?'” Osterholm said. “Do we put the brakes on after the car’s wrapped around the tree, or we try to put the brakes on before we leave the intersection?”
Officials say they need more vaccines
Calls for faster vaccine rollouts have increased questions over doses of the vaccine believed to be stockpiled, concerns that infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said is a misunderstanding.
“In the beginning, when we wanted to make sure that everyone who got one dose would get a second dose. Because of the uncertainty in the smoothness of the rollout of the doses that would be available, half of the doses would be held back so that people would be guaranteed to get their second dose,” Fauci told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Tuesday.
Now, with more confidence in the consistent distribution, those doses that were held back have been made available, Fauci said.
Across the US, more than 10.5 million people have received at least the first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, about 1.6 million of whom have received a second dose, according to CDC data last updated Friday.
But state and local officials are worried the supply will not be enough to continue the momentum.
San Francisco’s Department of Public Health announced its supply will be exhausted by Thursday if there isn’t an additional allotment. New York is set to run out by the same day, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday.
“If we don’t get more vaccine quickly, we will have to cancel appointments,” de Blasio said.
Due to their low vaccine supplies, Baptist Health South Florida has canceled all vaccination appointments for anyone scheduled to receive a first dose beginning Wednesday.
Georgia is set up for vaccines with staff volunteers and the infrastructure, but there aren’t enough doses available in the state, said Georgia Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey.
“We’ve been getting about 80,000 doses a week and that’s not much for a state with 11 million people,” she said.
Will the vaccines protect against the variant?
Experts have warned that while the variant first identified in the UK does not appear to be more deadly, it is more easily transmittable. So far, more than 120 cases have been identified in 20 states, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Other variants have been found as well, including two in Brazil. Another has shown up in California, but it’s not known whether it is contributing to renewed spread there.
A new study, which has yet to be peer reviewed, suggests someone might be able to get infected with one of the new variants of the coronavirus even if they’ve had Covid-19 before or have been vaccinated.
But other experts are confident the vaccines will protect against the variant.
“The efficacy of the vaccine is so good and so high that we have a little bit of a cushion,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, incoming director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told JAMA editor in chief Howard Bauchner on Tuesday.
With a starting point of about 95% efficacy, Walensky said that even if the vaccines are slightly less effective against new variants, they will still be more effective than most vaccines.
“It’s going to work against the variant,” she said. “Will it be 95%? Maybe. Will it be 70%? Maybe. But our flu vaccines aren’t 75% effective every year and we still get them.”