As America sets daily records of new cases, deaths and hospitalizations due to the rampant spread of COVID-19, there is a threat that a new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus will make the situation worse in coming weeks.
If experts like Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center of Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota, are right, the clock is ticking down to a point when the B117 variant, first found in the United Kingdom, will cause massive issues in the U.S.
On his weekly podcast, Osterholm said there is evidence to suggest that it takes 6-8 weeks from when the U.K. variant is first discovered before it becomes a dominant strain in the population.
The first five confirmed cases of the B117 variant in Minnesota were discovered in the final two weeks of December, with the Minnesota Department of Health reporting the findings to the public on January 9.
"The only way we're going to stop this virus in 6 to 8 weeks if it in fact takes off as I think it very may will, what we're doing now is not going to work," Osterholm said. "That's the truth. What we have to understand is we are not in the same place we were even six months ago. We now have to consider what steps we will take to stop that transmission."
Osterholm believes strict lockdowns like those ordered in the U.K. and Ireland may be necessary. Ireland has seen the B117 explode, going from a 7-day average on Jan. 1 of 1,753 new cases per day to more than 8,200 new cases per day just a week later.
"The surge is thought to be fueled by this new B117 variant in addition to relaxing restrictions," said Osterholm.
There is no evidence that the U.K. strain can evade vaccines, but it is thought to be anywhere from 20-70% more contagious. There's also no evidence that U.K. strain causes more severe illness, but more cases naturally lead to more hospitalizations and increased deaths.
Variants that were first discovered in South Africa and Brazil have not been confirmed in the U.S., though Osterholm said there is some evidence to suggest those variants can cause more severe illness.
"We can still protect ourselves from these viruses using the very same methods that we would use for any of the SARS-CoV-2 viruses to date," Osterholm said, encouraging everyone to continue social distancing, washing hands and wearing a mask.
Former CDC director Tom Frieden told Vox that people should consider avoiding going to the grocery store unless it's necessary, and to get in and out of stores quickly when shopping is necessary.
“Shopping for five minutes in the grocery store is a lot better — six times better — than shopping for 30 minutes,” Frieden said. “Picking up groceries at the curbside is even better, and having them delivered is even better still."
While much of America is dealing with surging COVID-19 cases, Minnesota and the Upper Midwest is experiencing a decline or plateauing of cases.
Hospitalizations have dropped to the lowest levels in Minnesota since before Halloween, with the state reporting that 125 COVID-19 patients were in intensive care and a further 487 hospitalized in non-critical care, through Jan. 14. It's the fewest since there were 584 hospitalizations reported Oct. 25, according to the COVID Tracking Project.
Keeping the hospital numbers at a manageable level will remain key if the B117 variant does indeed becoming prolific in Minnesota and the rest of the country.
"This is a stay-tuned moment," Osterholm said. "We have got to start working now to make sure that our healthcare facilities are geared up for what could be a terrible-terrible-terrible increase in cases in 6-8 weeks. We have to understand that we are going to need to make sure as many of our healthcare workers are vaccinated by that time so they can safely be in these environments caring for our patients."