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Jan. 7, 2021, 6:15 a.m. EST

U.S. could see up to 150,000 more COVID-19 deaths by February as new strain takes hold, expert warns

More infectious variant makes it even more crucial to get vaccine program on track after early disappointment, says Dr. Ashish Jha

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By Ciara Linnane, MarketWatch


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The U.S. set a fresh record for hospitalizations with the coronavirus-borne illness COVID-19 on Wednesday, as experts said the new, far more infectious variant makes it even more crucial to get the nation’s so-far underwhelming vaccine program on track.

The U.S. added at least 238,999 new cases on Tuesday and at least 3,664 people died, according to a New York Times tracker. The U.S. has averaged 219,684 new cases every day in the past week, confirming the worst case scenario forecasts of experts who said the holiday season would lead to fresh surges.

There was a record of 131,195 COVID-19 patients in U.S. hospitals on Tuesday, according to the COVID Tracking Project, breaking the record of 128,210 set a day earlier. The U.S. continues to lead the world by cases, at 21 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University, and by deaths, at 359,077, or about a fifth of the global total.

The new variant of the virus, that first emerged in the U.K. where it has run rampant, has been found across the U.S. and is likely spreading in communities.

‘We should expect, without further action, that as the new strain takes hold, we will see an additional 10 million infections in the U.S. between now and end of February and during that time, we could easily see an additional 100,000 to 150,000 deaths.’

Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean and professor of health services, policy and practice, Brown University School of Public Health

“It is, at this point, almost surely too widespread to be contained in any specific state or region of our country,” said Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean and professor of health services, policy and practice at the Brown University School of Public Health, in a statement. “This new variant is significantly more infectious, threatening a rapid increase in rates of new cases and a much, much more deadly and destructive pandemic. This demands an urgent rethinking of our current policy responses.”

The variant has been named B.1.1.7 and is estimated to be 40% to 70% more infectious than the original virus, said Jha, although it does not so far seem to make people sicker. Officials expect it to respond to the vaccines that have so far been granted emergency use authorization for use in the pandemic. A strain that Jha called a “close cousin” of the new variant has been found in South Africa and the U.K. but has not yet been detected in the U.S.

A significant increase in rates of infection will translate into a much, much more deadly pandemic, he said.

“One epidemiologist, (Adam Kucharski, associate professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine), comparing a 50% increase in severity of disease with a 50% increase in infectiousness, in a hypothetical in a town with 10,000 infections increased infectiousness would lead to a five-fold increase in deaths over a month – because a lower death rate of a very large number of cases produces many more deaths than a higher death rate but a lower number of cases,” said Jha.

The new variant is estimated to account for about 1% of all infections now, but will likely account for the vast majority by March.

“We should expect, without further action, that as the new strain takes hold, we will see an additional 10 million infections in the U.S. between now and end of February and during that time, we could easily see an additional 100,000 to 150,000 deaths,” he said.

That means it is more important than ever for Americans to comply with public safety measures experts have recommended throughout the pandemic, namely frequent hand washing, social distancing and wearing a face mask in all public spaces. People should avoid gatherings that bring more than one household together, and testing must be improved, he said.

“And finally, we must redouble our efforts to vaccinate as many people as we possibly can,” said Jha.

Read now: There is only a slim chance that the vaccine will stop the COVID pandemic this year

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker shows that just 4.8 million people had been dosed as of 9.00 a.m. ET on Jan. 5, and just 17 million doses had been distributed. That’s far below the most recently revised number of 20 million deliveries promised by the administration of President Donald Trump, and way off the original promise of 100 million.

Trump has left it to states to administer the vaccine program — tweeting that it was “up to the states to administer” and then calling some states “very slow” — meaning that stressed state health departments, which have already had to deal with testing, contact tracing, public information campaigns and deciding when or whether schools or businesses should be open or closed, are now tasked with handling the biggest public health effort in decades.

See: January will be worst month for U.S. pandemic so far with post-holiday travel cases seen surging

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