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Virus Expert Sounds "Emergency" COVID Alarm

"The dark clouds are coming," he warned.

The U.S. should go into "emergency mode" over a rapidly spreading variant of COVID-19, warns one of the world's leading epidemiologists, Dr. Michael Osterholm. The variant known as B.1.1.7 originated in the U.K. and likely arrived in the U.S. last December. It has since been identified in every state, and cases are doubling every week to 10 days. Experts are particularly concerned because B.1.1.7 is 50 to 70 percent more contagious, causes more severe illness, and may be less responsive to vaccines. Read on for more of his warning—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had Coronavirus.

"We Need to Go Into Emergency Mode," Says Dr. Michael Osterholm

"We need to go into an emergency mode because of what is the approaching disaster with the B.1.1.7 variant," said epidemiologist Dr. Michael Osterholm on his podcast Monday. 

Osterholm recommends delaying second doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and allocating those shots to people who haven't yet received their first dose, particularly those 65 years of age or older, because age is the greatest risk factor for severe illness, hospitalization and death.

"I believe we've lost our opportunity to save many lives in the weeks ahead," he said. "There is no mistaking. The approaching dark clouds are coming."

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Reopenings May Bring Surge, He Warns 

Osterholm says that because B.1.1.7 is so much more infectious, more Americans will need to be vaccinated to reach herd immunity—80 to 90 percent rather than the previous estimate of 65 to 75 percent.

He also warned against the loosening of restrictions and reopenings which are happening in many parts of the country, pointing out that B.1.1.7's high infection rate sent the U.K. into two months of lockdown from which they are just beginning to emerge, and is straining healthcare systems in other countries throughout Europe. 

"At some point, we're going to have to pivot and pivot fast, and I don't know what it's going to take," said Osterholm. "Do we have to finally have our ICUs overflowing with patients? Are we going to have to somehow hit the old numbers again before we basically say, 'OK, maybe we're going to have to turn the tide here'? How many governors have promised schools will be fully open again in the next two to four weeks? How are they going to unring that bell?"

Ultimately, minimizing the impact of the virus variants is key to ending the pandemic soon, said Osterholm. "I do believe if we get through this next surge, that the vaccines will be there. And if we can minimize these variants that might compromise the vaccines, we were going to be home pretty soon. We are going to get through this."

How to Survive This Pandemic

As for yourself, do everything you can to prevent getting—and spreading—COVID-19 in the first place: Wear a face mask, get tested if you think you have coronavirus, avoid crowds (and bars, and house parties), practice social distancing, only run essential errands, wash your hands regularly, disinfect frequently touched surfaces, and to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Michael Martin
Michael Martin is a New York City-based writer and editor whose health and lifestyle content has also been published on Beachbody and Openfit. A contributing writer for Eat This, Not That!, he has also been published in New York, Architectural Digest, Interview, and many others. Read more about Michael
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