Another coronavirus surge may be on the way in the United States as daily COVID-19 cases continue to plateau around 60,000, states begin to lift restrictions, and people embark on spring break trips this week, according to CNN.
Outbreaks will likely stem from the B.1.1.7 variant, which was first identified in the United Kingdom, and gain momentum during the next 6-14 weeks.
“Four weeks ago, the B.1.1.7 variant made up about 1%-4% of the virus that we were seeing in communities across the country. Today it’s up to 30%-40%,” Michael Osterholm, PhD, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, told NBC’s Meet the Press on March 7.
Dr. Osterholm compared the current situation with the “eye of the hurricane,” where the skies appear clear but more storms are on the way. Across Europe, 27 countries are seeing significant B.1.1.7 case increases, and 10 are getting hit hard, he said.
“What we’ve seen in Europe, when we hit that 50% mark, you see cases surge,” he said. “So right now, we do have to keep America as safe as we can from this virus by not letting up on any of the public health measures we’ve taken.”
In January, the CDC warned that B.1.1.7 variant cases would increase in 2021 and become the dominant variant in the country by this month. The United States has now reported more than 3,000 cases across 46 states, according to the latest CDC tally updated on March 7. More than 600 cases have been found in Florida, followed by more than 400 in Michigan.
The CDC has said the tally doesn’t represent the total number of B.1.1.7 cases in the United States, only the ones that have been identified by analyzing samples through genomic sequencing.
“Where it has hit in the U.K. and now elsewhere in Europe, it has been catastrophic,” Celine Gounder, MD, an infectious disease specialist with New York University Langone Health, told CNN on March 7.
The variant is more transmissible than the original novel coronavirus, and the cases in the United States are “increasing exponentially,” she said.
“It has driven up rates of hospitalizations and deaths and it’s very difficult to control,” Dr. Gounder said.
Vaccination numbers aren’t yet high enough to stop the predicted surge, she added. The United States has shipped more than 116 million vaccine doses, according to the latest CDC update on March 7. Nearly 59 million people have received at least one dose, and 30.6 million people have received two vaccine doses. About 9% of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated.
States shouldn’t ease restrictions until the vaccination numbers are much higher and daily COVID-19 cases fall below 10,000 – and maybe “considerably less than that,” Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN on March 4.
Several states have already begun to lift COVID-19 safety protocols, with Texas and Mississippi removing mask mandates last week. Businesses in Texas will be able to reopen at full capacity on March 10. For now, public health officials are urging Americans to continue to wear masks, avoid crowds, and follow social distancing guidelines as vaccines roll out across the country.
“This is sort of like we’ve been running this really long marathon, and we’re 100 yards from the finish line and we sit down and we give up,” Dr. Gounder told CNN on Sunday. ‘We’re almost there, we just need to give ourselves a bit more time to get a larger proportion of the population covered with vaccines.”
A version of this article first appeared on WebMD.com.