Covid: US reporting fewer new cases but study warns variant may cause surge

By Jessica Glenza

Less than 100,000 new cases reported on Sunday while researchers found B117 variant to be doubling in roughly over one week

The US has reported fewer new Covid-19 cases and fewer people hospitalized than at any time since November, according to the Covid Tracking Project. Fewer than 100,000 new cases were reported on Sunday.

While new data may be incomplete, forecasters expect a decline in new cases, hospitalizations and deaths as the deadliest wave of the pandemic abates.

Nevertheless, experts predict a death toll of more than 500,000 by the end of February. Furthermore, a new study has warned that the B117 Covid variant could cause another surge in cases. First identified in the UK, B117 is known to be more contagious than current dominant strains in the US.

“We remain in a very serious situation,” said Dr Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at a White House Covid-19 taskforce briefing on Monday.

The average rate of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths per week have all declined, said Walensky, including a 20% drop in new cases and a 17% decline in hospitalizations. However, more than 83,000 Americans are still hospitalized with Covid-19.

“I’m asking everyone to please keep your guard up,” said Walensky. “The continued proliferation of variants is of great concern and could reverse the recent positive trends we’re seeing.”

Walensky encouraged all Americans to continue to wear face masks, social distance, hand-wash and get vaccinated when it is their turn.

“We have yet to control this pandemic,” she said.

Also on Monday morning, it was announced that the Texas Republican Ron Wright had become the first member of Congress to die of Covid-19. He was 67.

Americans are still struggling to follow basic public health guidelines. In just the most recent example, after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl on Sunday night, many fans celebrated without wearing masks.

— Walid Gellad, MD MPH (@walidgellad) February 8, 2021

“On the road to recovery, we still have a few bumps ahead,” said Dr Ashish K Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. “A big one is the B117 – the UK variant.”

The dangers of the variant were reiterated in a study published at the weekend. Researchers from two genetic research companies sequenced 212 samples from Covid-19 patients. The study was not peer-reviewed.

The researchers found the B117 variant to be doubling in roughly over one week, and that it is 35%-45% more transmissible in the US. That level of spread means “the US is on a similar trajectory to other countries where B117 rapidly became the dominant Sars-CoV-2 variant, requiring immediate and decisive action to minimize Covid-19 morbidity and mortality”, the study said.

In a separate study released in January, the CDC predicted the B117 variant could become dominant by March. At least 690 cases have been identified in 33 states but data is known to be incomplete.

Walensky said she expected regular sequencing of virus samples to triple in the coming weeks, giving public health authorities a better picture of the scale of spread of B117. The US has among the best genetic testing infrastructure in the world, but has lagged behind in genome sequencing for Covid-19 because of a lack of funding.

With vaccines still in short supply, the most effective way to reduce the spread of Covid-19 is to use masks, to socially distance and to wash hands.

Dr Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said: “The two things we can do are: a) make sure we adhere to public health measures; b) get as many people vaccinated as quickly as we possibly can.

“Please remember the … currently utilized vaccines are quite effective against the B117 lineage.”

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were expected on Monday to virtually tour a vaccination site in an Arizona NFL stadium which is open 24 hours a day as part of an effort to speed up vaccinations and dampen the spread of the variant. The NFL offered all 30 stadiums as vaccination sites.

Democrats have also proposed an ambitious new $3,000 tax credit for families with children as part of the new Covid-19 relief bill which was beginning its committee stage in Washington on Monday. The Internal Revenue Service would pay families $250 a month under the proposal, with lower payments for families earning more than $150,000 per year.

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