The race between variants & vaccines: Where things stand today

Two competing forces are currently playing out in the U.S. that could dictate what the pandemic's coming months look like. As more transmissible coronavirus variants sweep the nation, health officials are in a race to vaccinate as many people as possible to prevent additional hospitalizations and deaths.

Here's where things stand, as of March 25.

Current state of coronavirus variants in the U.S.

On the heels of this winter's surge and amid an accelerating vaccine rollout, many states are lifting or scaling back virus restrictions in a bid to return to normal life. Many epidemiologists and public health experts have urged continued caution, saying that the U.K. variant B.1.1.7 spreading nationwide could cause another surge and prolong the pandemic. 

"The continued relaxation of prevention measures while cases are still high, and while concerning variants are spreading rapidly throughout the United States, is a serious threat to the progress we have made as a nation," Rochelle Walensky, MD, CDC director, said during a March 22 White House news briefing.

The CDC confirmed 7,501 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant in all 50 states and Puerto Rico as of March 23. 

Florida has confirmed the most B.1.1.7 cases of all states, with 1,042 infections as of March 23. Some health experts have expressed concern that spring breakers traveling to Florida may take the variant back to their home states. Michigan follows closely behind Florida with 986 B.1.1.7 cases, and California has reported the third most at 471.

While the COVID-19 vaccine provides good coverage against the U.K. variant, it still poses the most immediate threat to the country, as emerging research suggests the variant is highly transmissible and deadlier than previously circulating strains, according to Michael Osterholm, PhD, an epidemiologist and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

"If you look at the increased infectivity of this variant — and I can speak to that here in Minnesota where we're seeing a major uptick in an outbreak — it is remarkable what we're seeing in terms of transmission among kids and kids to adults. If you look at that combination and states like Michigan right now that are seeing major upticks, you have to take this one very seriously," he told Becker's.

Health officials are also monitoring other coronavirus variants spreading nationwide. The CDC has confirmed 219 cases of the South Africa variant, known as B.1.351, in 27 states as of March 23. Sixty-one cases of the Brazil/Japan P.1 variant have also been detected in 18 states.

"Increasingly, states are seeing a growing proportion of their COVID-19 cases attributed to variants," Dr. Walensky said. "The newly identified variant, B1427/B1429, is estimated to account for 52 percent of cases in California, 41 percent in Nevada and 25 percent in Arizona. And the B.1.1.7 variant is estimated to be responsible for 9 percent of cases in New Jersey and 8 percent in Florida."

Current state of COVID-19 vaccinations in the U.S.

In total, 25.7 percent of Americans (85.5 million people) have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, while 14 percent of the population (46.4 million people) is fully vaccinated as of March 24, according to the CDC.   

The seven-day average of COVID-19 vaccines administered daily was 2.5 million as of March 18, a 12.1 percent increase from the previous week's average, according to the CDC's COVID Data Tracker Weekly Review published March 19.  

Officials in more than 40 states have said they will meet or beat President Joe Biden's goal of opening COVID-19 vaccinations to every adult by May 1, with at least 30 states aiming for dates in March or April.

Of those who've received one dose, 70.3 percent are age 65 or older. The nation's efforts to prioritize this age group may help prevent some of the hospitalizations, severe illness and deaths that could arise amid a surge driven by the U.K. variant, according to Dr. Osterholm. That said, many people are still at risk of catching the more transmissible variant. 

"We have so much vaccination going on, but then you have 19 million individuals aged 65 and up who have not been vaccinated," he told Becker's. "If you look at our rates combined with the number of people who were previously infected, and we still have lots of people who could get infected."

Though the CDC doesn't break down vaccinations by race and ethnicity, various reports across the country have found lower vaccination rates in Black and Hispanic communities, compared to their white counterparts. 

"We all want to return to our everyday activities and spend time with our family, friends, and loved ones. But we must find the fortitude to hang in there for just a little bit longer," Dr. Walensky urged Americans March 22. "We are at a critical point in this pandemic, a fork in the road, where we as a country must decide which path we are going to take … And I am worried that if we don't take the right actions now, we will have another avoidable surge, just as we are seeing in Europe right now and just as we are so aggressively scaling up vaccination."

To view a list of states ranked by percentage of population vaccinated, click here.  


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