The US could see a “fourth surge” of coronavirus cases fuelled by the spread of variants, a top health official has warned.
Dr Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said variants are a “real threat to our people and progress”, and that there was real concern of a possible fourth wave based on some concerning CDC data.
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New COVID-19 cases in the States have plateaued, following some steep drops, and have started to increase again over the last few days.
Declines in hospitalisations and deaths are also “potentially levelling off at still a very high number”, Dr Walensky said.
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There are currently around 70,000 coronavirus cases a day and 2,000 daily deaths, Dr Walensky added.
Overall, the outbreak has killed more than half a million Americans.
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As a result, Dr Walensky said she was “really worried” about reports of US states “rolling back the exact public health measures we have recommended to protect people from COVID-19”. These include mask-wearing and social distancing.
“We stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained,” she said.
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“We have the ability to stop a potential fourth surge of cases in this country. Please stay strong in your conviction.”
Twenty-nine out of 50 states reported more new coronavirus infections last week compared to the previous seven days. Only seven states in the prior week reported weekly increases, according analysis by Reuters.
Three variants first identified in the UK, South Africa and Brazil have given researchers concern as they appear to be more contagious.
A CDC study published in January warned that the variant found in the UK, known as B.1.1.7, will likely to become the dominant strain circulating in the country by March.
“Please hear me clearly: at this level of cases, with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained,” Dr Walensky said. “These variants are a very real threat to our people and our progress.”
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Last month Dr Walensky said the country needed to rapidly ramp up its vaccination programme and step up surveillance of the virus to counteract variants.
As of Sunday, 15% of the US population has received at least one dose of a vaccine and 7.5% has received two doses, according to the CDC.
The country administered an average of 1.6 million shots per day last week.