A dangerous coronavirus variant is wreaking havoc in parts of Europe. Experts fear US could be next

(CNN) — A dangerous coronavirus variant is wreaking havoc in other parts of the world, so the US must stick with safety measures over the next few months to prevent that kind of damage as the variant takes more of a hold stateside, an expert says.

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.

That advice comes as Pfizer and BioNTech release news that could impact inoculations later this year: Their Covid-19 vaccine was 100% effective and well tolerated in youths ages 12-15 in a clinical trial, the companies said Wednesday.

Pfizer/BioNTech said they intend to submit the data as soon as possible for expanded emergency use authorization of their two-dose vaccine for those ages to the US Food and Drug Administration. Currently, no Covid-19 vaccine is authorized for anyone under 16 in the US.

As for the B.1.1.7 variant, it has 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, officials say the strain has led to more infections and hospitalizations, with rising numbers of severe illnesses, including in younger patients.

Health leaders worry the US could be headed in a similar direction, because a big part of the population remains vulnerable the virus. The three vaccines authorized in the US appear to work well against B.1.1.7, but only about 16.1% of the US population has been fully vaccinated, according to 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.

But it doesn’t have to get that bad.

“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.

His warning comes as new coronavirus cases have spiked in the US over the past week.

The US has averaged more than 66,870 new Covid-19 cases a day over the last week as of Monday — a 24.6% jump over the week prior, when the average had fallen to its lowest point of 2021, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

 

Michigan governor says she thinks variant is driving surge there

 

Michigan has seen one of the highest Covid-19 case increases over the last week by percentage — 52%, according to Johns Hopkins — and its governor said Wednesday she believes B.1.1.7 is one of the reasons.

Its current seven-day average, 5,409 cases a day, is Michigan’s highest since mid-December.

“We haven’t abandoned our protocols; it’s just that we’ve got a higher proportion of variants,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told CNN’s “New Day.” “And part of that is people getting tired, there’s fatigue, and there’s variants and there’s more travel.”

Michigan has the country’s second-highest total of reported B.1.1.7 cases in the country, according to the CDC. The count represents only B.1.1.7 cases caught in surveillance analysis of positive samples, and so the variant’s actual presence is likely higher than reported.

The state has a mask mandate and restrictions on restaurant and gym capacity, though capacity restrictions were recently eased. She said there are always robust discussions about whether to tighten restrictions, but “what we need to do is double down on our masking and get more people vaccinated.”

 

Vaccine expert thinks adolescents could start inoculations in summer

 

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.

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.

As for Pfizer’s trial reportedly showing 100% efficacy of its vaccine in children ages 12-15, a vaccine expert said that assuming the FDA authorizes expanded use, he could see that age range begin to get vaccinated this year.

“I think there is some urgency to try to do this by the fall (for school reopenings), and so I think over the summer, I wouldn’t be surprised if we started seeing adolescents get vaccinated,” Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital, told CNN Wednesday.

Track Covid-19 vaccinations

More than a dozen states have opened vaccine eligibility to everyone 16 and older, and every other state has announced plans to do so by at least May 1.

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

Pfizer is conducting a Phase 1/2/3 study of its vaccine in children ages 6 months to 11 years, and results are expected by the end of the year.

Moderna also is testing its Covid-19 vaccine in adolescents and children: One trial in children ages 12-17, and another for 6 months to 11 years.

 

Covid-19 was third leading cause of death last year, CDC confirms in early data

 

Covid-19 was the third leading cause of death in the United States last year, after heart disease and cancer, according to provisional data released Wednesday by the CDC.

Unintentional injury and stroke were fourth and fifth, respectively.

Overall, the US death rate increased by 15.9% between 2019 and 2020 — from 715.2 to 828.7 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the report.

The data is provisional — the numbers and death rates might change as additional information is received. Since investigating causes of death takes time, final data for a given year is typically published about 11 months after the end of the calendar year.

Life expectancy in the United States also dropped a full year in the first half of 2020, according to a provisional report published by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics in February. The report shows that US life expectancy fell to 77.8 years, back to what it was in 2006.

 

Wisconsin’s Supreme Court strikes down mask mandate

 

While some governors recently lifted mask mandates, Wisconsin’s governor is unwillingly watching his vanish.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Wednesday effectively struck down that state’s mask mandate, by ruling Gov. Tony Evers did not have authority to issue successive health emergency declarations.

Evers, facing opposition from the Legislature, used emergency declarations to institute statewide mask mandates. The court noted that it wasn’t ruling on whether the mask mandate was wise, but only that Evers’ successive declarations bypassing the Legislature weren’t legal.

Evers responded to Wednesday’s ruling by asking residents to keep wearing masks, even without a mandate. “We still need Wisconsinites to mask up so we can beat this virus,” he said.

Earlier this week, President Joe Biden made a plea to the nation’s leaders to reinstate mask mandates, adding, “this is not politics.”

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.

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

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

Other leaders also announced they were easing restrictions.

In California, 13 counties are moving to a less restrictive tier, state health officials said Tuesday. The state has set up a tier system that 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.

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