The U.S. is wrapping up a week of historic turmoil.
On January 6, the day that pro-Trump riots ransacked the Capitol building amid the certification of the 2020 presidential election, the U.S. saw a record 4,100 deaths from COVID-19 with more than 132,000 American hospitalized after contracting the disease caused by coronavirus. And the numbers are getting worse.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health and chief medical adviser to President-elect Joe Biden, told NPR that the next couple weeks “will likely will be a reflection of the holiday season travel and the congregate settings that usually take place socially during that period of time. ... So we believe things will get worse as we get into January.”
Over 21 million Americans have contracted COVID-19 so far, and more than 365,000 people have died.
“The horrible death number from [Wednesday] reflects infections that happened well before the holidays,” Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, said on Yahoo Finance Live (video above). “We’ve got bad numbers to go still. And then this variant is quite bad. It probably represents about 1% of infections in the U.S. right now. All the models suggest that it will become the predominant source of infections by early March.”
‘We’re giving the virus so many opportunities’
At least two mutant (i.e. variant) strains of the virus have been identified, one based out of the United Kingdom and the other out of South Africa, that have arrived in the U.S.
This has worried public health experts, particularly because both variants appear to be more transmissible than the original strain. Pharmaceutical companies have assured that their COVID-19 vaccines in development can resist the strain, though more science is required over time.
“We could do a lot of laboratory testing, where you take the antibodies of people who have been vaccinated and see if it neutralizes the new variant,” he said. “Ultimately, the proof is in the clinical data that actually comes from people who’ve been vaccinated, looking to see how they deal with the new variant.”
And while it may take some time to confirm the vaccines are still effective, Jha said the evidence so far suggests that they will be.
“There’s a little bit of [us] pushing our luck here,” Jha said. “Because the more we let this virus spread, the more we’re giving the virus options to mutate or chances to mutate.”
He stressed that the U.S. needs to fix its national COVID-19 strategy, or else risk another strain developing.
“One of the many insane things about the ‘let the infection run’ crowd was basically it was ‘hey, let the virus mutate’ crowd,” Jha said. “It was deeply irresponsible, and we’re seeing some of the effects of that. Part of the reason there’s so many mutations is because we’re giving the virus so many opportunities to infect people and mutate.”
‘Exponential growth is a really bad thing’
Many Americans are still getting sick because they haven’t followed safety guidelines, such as social distancing and avoiding indoor gatherings, while the vaccine rollout is going slower than expected.
Officials involved with Operation Warp Speed had hoped that 30 million Americans would be vaccinated by the end of January. However, only roughly 5 million actually have so far.
“It’s pretty awful and we’re not doing any of the things that we need to be doing to get on top of this thing,” Jha said. “Exponential growth is a really bad thing. A virus that’s 50% more contagious is a really bad thing. That’s what we’re looking at right now. And of course, our country is distracted by an insurrection and a federal government that is doing very, very little to help us get through this time.”
Despite the political unrest, President-elect Biden has vowed to ramp up the vaccine distribution as soon as he takes office, stating that he will release all of the available doses of the vaccine. But in the meantime, Jha is expecting cases to keep rising.
“A month ago, I was much more optimistic, partly because I believed in the targets of Operation Warp Speed, that 20 million Americans would be vaccinated by the end of December and 50 million would be vaccinated by the end of January,” Jha said. “That actually would have made an enormous difference. But that obviously not only hasn’t happened, it’s not going to happen by the end of January.”
Jha stressed that he is “optimistic about the long run. I still think April, May, June, will be much, much better. But boy, the next couple months are looking about as bad as I had possibly envisioned it could.”
Adriana is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @adrianambells.