By Ciara Linnane
The global tally of confirmed cases of the coronavirus-borne illness COVID-19 climbed above 103 million on Monday with the U.S. accounting for a quarter of that number, as a snowstorm created blizzard conditions across the Northeast and shuttered vaccination sites.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said Sunday that he did not want seniors, who are first in line for jabs, to drive to vaccine appointments during the heavy snowfall. At least six other states — Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Virginia — were also halting vaccinations, USA Today reported.
The U.S. added at least 111,478 new cases on Sunday, according to a New York Times tracker, and at least 1,875 people died. Cases have been steadily declining, however, and have averaged 148,460 a day in the past week, down 32% from the average two weeks ago.
Hospitalizations are also declining, according to the COVID Tracking Project . There were 95,013 COVID-19 patients in U.S. hospitals on Sunday, down from 97,561 a day earlier and the lowest level since Nov. 29.
But those trends may soon reverse, according to Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, and a member of President Joe Biden’s pandemic response team.
Osterholm told NBC’s Meet the Press that a Category 5 hurricane is coming in the shape of the more infectious strain that was first detected in the U.K. and is expected to become the dominant strain in the U.S. by spring.
“If we see that happen, which my 45 years in the trenches tell us we will, we are going to see something like we have not seen yet in this country,” he said. “That hurricane is coming,” he said.
Osterholm said it might be wise for the U.S. to tweak its vaccine program to adapt to the new variant, as well as others that have emerged in Brazil and South Africa, and strive to get as many first doses into as many arms as possible, with a particular focus on people aged 65 and over.
“We saw our health care system literally on the edge of not being able to provide care,” Osterholm said. “Imagine if we have what has happened in England, twice as many of those cases. That’s what we have to prepare for now.”
The good news for now is that the vaccines that have received emergency use authorization in the U.S. and elsewhere appear to be effective in dealing with the U.K. variant, although they are less effective in dealing with the South Africa strain. That strain was confirmed on Friday in two cases in South Carolina.
Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine and professor of pediatrics and molecular virology and microbiology at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, told MSNBC that it is “sort of encouraging” to see case and hospitalization numbers go down.
However, he agreed it could be the eye of the hurricane with new variants arriving, which could create “a huge surge .”
Hotez agreed that the level of protection offered by vaccines against new strains is good enough, but said we need to get to three-quarters of the population vaccinated ahead of the new variants, which implies three million a day, and “we’re just not there.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker is showing that as of 6.00 a.m. ET Sunday, 31.3 million doses had been administered and almost 50 million doses delivered. The U.S. is administering an average of 1.35 million doses a day on a seven-day basis, according to Raymond James analyst Chris Meekins, up 156% from three weeks ago.
“Things are on the right trajectory,” he wrote in a note to clients. “Yet, we have this looming unknown” in the new variants, he said.
Hotez said the U.S. could avoid a summer wave, “if the stars align.”
“It is possible we can achieve that herd immunity even with the more highly transmissible variants, but it’s going to have to be the top priority of this administration to get everybody vaccinated. “
In other news:
• Drug company AstraZeneca PLC /zigman2/quotes/200304487/composite AZN -0.18% /zigman2/quotes/203048482/delayed UK:AZN -0.27% has agreed to supply 9 million additional doses of its coronavirus vaccine to the European Union during the first quarter, the bloc’s executive arm said Sunday, AP reported. The new target of 40 million doses by the end of March is still only half what the British-Swedish company had originally aimed for, triggering a spat between AstraZeneca and the EU last week. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said after a call with seven vaccine makers Sunday that AstraZeneca will also begin deliveries one week sooner than scheduled and expand its manufacturing capacity in Europe. “Step forward on vaccines,” tweeted Von der Leyen, who has come under intense pressure over the European Commission’s handling of the vaccine orders in recent days.