• As of mid-day Tuesday, the latest coronavirus update for the US shows that more than 27.1 million COVID-19 cases have been identified here since the start of the pandemic.
  • Even though the pace of new infections has declined, experts like White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci think that could change soon.
  • The reason is the much more transmissible and contagious COVID-19 variant strains from places like South Africa.

The latest coronavirus update from the team of researchers at Johns Hopkins University that’s been tracking the pandemic shows that there have been more than 27.1 million coronavirus cases in the US to date, along with more than 465,000 deaths. As we’ve noted on a number of occasions, part of what’s largely driving the numbers now, which have been on a promising decline in recent days, are the more transmissible new COVID-19 variant strains — which experts like those at the CDC as well as White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci think are well on their way to becoming the dominant strains in the US very soon.

That shift is happening at precisely the worst time, with state and local governments finally starting to loosen restrictions on places like restaurants — which have tended to be capped at a limited maximum capacity as COVID cases mounted — right as a much stronger wave of new COVID infections might be about to materialize. This kind of decision can be seen in Iowa, where the state’s Republican governor lifted the state’s partial mask mandate at the end of last week. The newspaper editorial board of The Des Moines Register also slammed Gov. Kim Reynolds’ companion decision to remove limits on public gatherings, as well as on the number of customers allowed in a business. In an interview with NBC News, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health infectious disease epidemiologist Dr. Justin Lessler confessed that “I have some concern it’s premature” to start removing these kinds of restrictions, with Dr. Fauci providing some additional context along these lines.

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Bottom line, Dr. Fauci is worried that we’re about to be hit with a scary wave of the COVID variant strains that are much more contagious — which threaten to send cases skyrocketing again. And you know what follows from that. More cases = more hospitalizations = more coronavirus deaths.

“What we’re seeing now in our country is still a dominant, original wild type virus (against) which the vaccines are highly efficacious, 94 to 95%,” Dr. Fauci said during Monday’s White House COVID-19 Response Team Briefing, which you can check out below. “The immediate concern that we have is that the fact that we have the 117 (variant) in certainly a considerable number of states, reported with a number of people that modeling would tell us that it could become dominant by the end of March. That’s the sobering news.”

Continued Dr. Fauci: “A virus is transmissible and virulent, and the degree of transmissibility and the degree of virulence can actually overlap … A virus that has a greater degree of transmissibility will be making more people sick. The more people that get sick, the more people will be hospitalized. And the more people that are hospitalized, you’ll likely get more deaths.”

The good news is that this negative turn of events is not necessarily a foregone conclusion. According to Dr. Fauci, the COVID vaccines we have now are effective against the UK COVID variant (but “less so against the South African” strain). This is why the current game plan basically involves a race against time — vaccinating people as fast as possible and encouraging everyone, vaccinated or not, to continue abiding by current public safety protocols.

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Andy is a reporter in Memphis who also contributes to outlets like Fast Company and The Guardian. When he’s not writing about technology, he can be found hunched protectively over his burgeoning collection of vinyl, as well as nursing his Whovianism and bingeing on a variety of TV shows you probably don’t like.