America’s top infectious-disease expert warned that the country could face more COVID-19 lockdowns if cases go up once again due to the latest variant, even as the most cautious begin to shrug off their virus fears once-and-for-all.
Dr Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and adviser to President Joe Biden, said easing restrictions, the waning protection from vaccines and the rise of the BA.2 subvariant around the world could bring on another wave of rising infections to the U.S.
‘If in fact we do see a turnaround and a resurgence, we have to be able to pivot and go back to any degree of mitigation that is commensurate with what the situation is,’ Fauci said in a CNN interview on Thursday.
‘We can’t just say, ‘We’re done. We’re going to move on.’ We’ve got to be able to be flexible because we’re dealing with a dynamic situation.’
Fauci added that the variant, which has seen a spike in the UK, could cause a surge in the U.S. as it appears to be as infectious as Omicron, but less fatal.
‘The overall mortality is actually down,’ Fauci said. ‘It’s a very interesting situation where the cases are going up, but it does not, at this point in time, appear to be any degree of severity.’
‘We generally follow what goes on the UK by about two to three weeks,’ he added. ‘I would not be surprised in the next few weeks, given the fact that we’ve begun to open up, and we have an increase in the BA.2 variant, that we’ll be seeing an increase in cases.’
The warning came as COVID restrictions have been lifted all across the country amid a sharp drop in daily cases after the Omicron surge earlier this year.
Anthony Fauci (right), adviser to Joe Biden, appeared on CNN to warn that the U.S. could see the return of COVID restrictions if cases go up again
American’s are beginning to grow accustomed to the return to normal as all states across the country have lifted their COVID mask and vaccine mandates
The U.S. recorded about 45,015 new cases over the past day, with about 1,943 new deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. At the height of the Omicron surge, the US hit an all-time record of well over a million new infections every day.
As of Thursday, the U.S. is averaging 32,168 new cases every day, a 14 percent drop over the past week and a 96 percent drop from the peak of 800,000 daily cases reached during the Omicron surge’s mid-January peak.
Nationwide pandemic restrictions that have been in place for nearly two years were lifted after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised earlier this month that only 10 percent of the country – those living in ‘high’ COVID risk area – need to wear masks indoors in public settings.
New York City, which had some of the strictest COVID policies in place, has done away with its vaccine and masking mandate, as have Chicago and San Francisco, who were the longest holdouts of maintaining the policies in place.
As many welcomed the return to normalcy, some have criticized Fauci’s pessimistic view of the future of the pandemic.
Scott Atlas, a former White House COVID adviser, criticized Fauci during an interview with Carlson Tucker on Thursday night, questioning whether he should even still be America’s top adviser.
‘When do we admit that the person in charge of the policy is wrong and has been a failure,’ Atlas asked.
The criticism extended to the White House, which has been put on edge after a series of positive test results, including Doug Emhoff, Vice President Kamala Harris’ husband who tested positive last week.
‘Just because COVID isn’t disrupting some of our lives in certain communities as much as it was a few weeks ago, it doesn’t mean it’s gone,’ White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Thursday.
‘It’s not gone. And I think this variant is an example of that,’ she added, referencing the new BA.2 subvariant.
Scott Atlas (right), a former White House COVID adviser who served under Donald Trump, criticized Fauci’s pessimistic view on the future of the pandemic
New York City, which had some of the strictest COVID policies in place, has done away with its vaccine and masking mandate, although some residents still exercise caution
Global COVID-19 cases are starting to rise once again after plummeting in recent weeks after the Omicron variant reached its peak. The WHO reports that global Covid cases rose eight percent last week
On Thursday, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization, warned that the rise of the new variant was just the ‘tip of the iceberg,’ warning that COVID cases will grow in the coming weeks.
Last week, the WHO reported that global COVID cases increased eight percent to 11 million. The biggest jump was found in the Western Pacific region, where cases jumped 25 percent week-to-week. There was a 14 percent jump in Africa and two percent rise in Europe, as well.
The subvariant is a lineage of Omicron that is believed to be 30 percent more transmissible – but just as mild – as the BA.1 lineage that took over the world at the end of last year.
Cases are rising in much of the world, and European nations which often trend ahead of the U.S by a few months during the pandemic are among those to have experienced worrying rises. In the UK, cases have jumped 36 percent over the past week, to 91,000 per day. This comes after weeks of declines.
The CDC warned this week that the agency is seeing early signs of an increase in cases as well. Wastewater data from the first ten days of March shows cases increasing in one-third of testing sites across America.
The BA.2 Omicron ‘stealth’ variant (pink) now makes up around 23% of U.S. COVID-19 cases, up from 11% last week and 6% the week before. The Omicron variant makes up every single sequence case in America
Wastewater tracking works by using sewage samples to find virus prevalence within each community. Which people are actually testing positive for the virus cannot be determined, and exact case numbers cannot either, but it does give officials a general look at how cases are trending in certain areas.
The surveillance can be more accurate at judging COVID risk than raw case numbers, since many people – especially in a period where so many are vaccinated and boosted – are carrying an asymptomatic infection that they will never get tested for and unknowingly spread without being added to official totals.
COVID appears in waste before a person feels symptoms, as well, meaning there is a gap between wastewater figures increasing and official figures rising.
Dr. Amy Kirby, who leads the CDC’s wastewater surveillance, assures the public that there is still nothing to worry about, but officials are keeping an eye on the situation.
‘While wastewater levels are generally very low across the board, we are seeing an uptick of sites reporting an increase,’ she told NBC.
‘These bumps may simply reflect minor increase from very low levels to still low levels.’
America’s current case totals are so low, though, that small increases in case numbers should not be devastating or manage to overwhelm healthcare systems.
The nation has a high vaccination rate as well, with nearly 90 percent of U.S. adults having received at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine and nearly 100 million Americans boosted.
BA.2 has not been able to take hold in the U.S. the same way it did in much of Europe either. While the ‘stealth’ variant was quick to become dominant in the U.K. and Denmark when it was first discovered earlier this year, it is yet to have made a large impact in America.
According to most recent data revealed by the CDC on Tuesday, BA.2 makes up 23 percent of active COVID cases in the U.S., with BA.1 still being dominant.
The Omicron variant as a whole makes up every single sequenced case in the U.S., per the CDC, with the highly transmissive, vaccine-resistant, strain totally snuffing out the Delta variant this year.
BA.2’s share of COVID infections in America is rapidly growing, though, with the variant only accounting for 11 percent of sequenced cases last week, and only six percent the week previous that.
It is most prevalent in New Jersey and New York, and Northeastern regions of the U.S., accounting for around 40 percent of cases in both designated areas.
The strain is not yet the dominant COVID strain anywhere in America, while it has taken over in many parts of Europe.