Americans are landing in the hospital less often from coronavirus infections, but a new projection from a University of Washington model shows that we're not in the clear yet. Although the U.S.'s vaccination rate has increased, experts project that another 130,000 Americans will die from the coronavirus in the next three and a half months. In fact, there are four major factors that will cement how the course of the coronavirus goes in the near future for the U.S.
Two factors will help us continue to fight the virus: changing seasons and increasing vaccination rates. On the other hand, there are two factors that will create a challenge in slowing the spread: the B.1.1.7 variant (the UK strain) and more lax social behaviors. These two components could "slow or even reverse the declines that have begun," according to the University of Washington team.
Coronavirus Variants Are Spreading in the U.S.
Dr. Leana Wen, a medical analyst at CNN, says that lower numbers are good, but she's worried about the variants "because we have seen in other countries what happens when there is [an] explosive spread of these more contagious variants." One of these variants, the B.1.1.7 variant, originated from the UK and has been found in 39 states in more than 1,173 cases. Experts are concerned that this highly-contagious strain could become the dominant coronavirus strain in the U.S. by springtime.
The B.1.351 variant (seen first in South Africa) has been found in 17 cases in seven states and Washington, DC. The P.1 strain (from Brazil) was also found in two cases: one in Oklahoma and another in Minnesota. It's important to know that the B.1.1.7 case count is a sample count taken from analyzing positive tests, and it doesn't represent the whole population. It's still unknown how many variant cases we truly have in the U.S. Because we don't know the exact number of variant cases, staying safe and healthy is even more imperative than last year.
Don't Let Your Guard Down
Thanks to coronavirus protection measures such as social distancing, wearing face masks, and sanitizing frequently, we've managed to slow the infection spread over the winter months. But don't let these behaviors change as we head into the spring and summer seasons. The research team says, "As daily case counts decline and vaccination increases, behaviors are likely to change towards increased risk of transmission."
Experts are pleading for people to stay on guard, even if your state is starting to loosen its COVID-19 guidelines. Wen also indicated that a hybrid approach might be the best strategy right now. She said that with increased vaccination rates, continuing to isolate, mask up, and socially distance, we can control the spread more resourcefully.
The CDC recently released five key strategies to safely reopen schools, including universal mask-wearing. The agency also released a color-coded chart from blue to red that indicates levels of transmission. Almost 99% of minors in the U.S. are located in red zones. The colors in the chart indicate when it's best for certain mitigation measures to be implemented, but vaccinations aren't listed in any of the CDC's key strategies in reopening schools.
Wen says that there's another major piece of the puzzle missing: the safety of the teachers, who should be vaccinated before returning to schools, which are often "poorly-ventilated, cramped areas with many students who may not always be masking and practicing physical distancing." Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC Director, said that the CDC put teachers in phase 1B for vaccinations. Walensky also said that she strongly supports teachers receiving vaccines, but "we don't believe it's a prerequisite for schools to reopen."
Over 38 million people got their first dose of the vaccine, and 14 million have received both doses. Overall, about 72% of all doses in the U.S. have been distributed. If we can vaccinate 145 million adults by June, the University of Washington researcher team says we can prevent 114,000 deaths.
New York has a better vaccination distribution rate than the national average with both doses given using 83% of the vaccines available to the state. In California, millions of people are going to be added to the vaccination priority list, changing the age from 65 and older to 16 through 64 and including people with serious underlying conditions and those at high-risk due to disability. But California said that it is still facing a vaccine scarcity, forcing some Los Angeles mass vaccine sites to shutter their doors temporarily.
Many states are also facing vaccine distribution problems because of winter weather. For example, the federal government said that vaccine shipments to Texas would be delayed by several days because of the winter storm that knocked out power for much of the state. Besides distribution issues, vaccines cannot be administered as quickly as outdoor vaccination sites shut down due to inclement weather. Because indoor environments are already dangerous, there is a limit to how many vaccines an indoor facility can administer every day.
In Alabama, Oregon, Washington, the story is much of the same: winter weather is creating issues for residents to make it to the vaccine sites, causing massive delays in vaccination, and impeding shipment and distribution efforts.
Don't Forget the Basics
The next few months entail many changes; lifts on lockdown restrictions, increasing vaccination rates, school reopenings, and COVID-19 variants spreading name just a few. Though one thing that shouldn't change yet is our adherence to coronavirus protection protocols like face mask-wearing, social distancing, and hand sanitizing. Try to remain alert and protect yourself and your family as best as possible.
Continue to stay indoors, even when the weather starts getting warmer, and try to run errands during a slower period of the day. We're all eager for this pandemic to end. But assuming that it's already over and resuming life like it never happened is the surest way to keep it going. Stay vigilant. We can put an end to this in due time.
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