Federal health officials are concerned about the occurrence of the new coronavirus strain while the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths remains extraordinarily high in the U.S., according to Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This is the sixth day of over 4,000 deaths, she said, during a press call on Friday.
The variant that was first detected in South Africa has been found in 29 states.
"We should be treating every case as a variant right now," Walensky said.
Viruses mutate in ways that are advantageous to the virus, she said.
While it's believed the current vaccines are effective against the new strain, it's unknown how effective they are.
The current Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines are 94 to 95% effective, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical advisor to the president.
Two other vaccine candidates on the horizon by Novavax and Johnson & Johnson are less effective.
The Johnson & Johnson results are very encouraging, Fauci said. It has a 72% efficacy rate in the United States, which is not below the cutoff for some kind of efficacy.
It also has the advantage of being a single shot vaccine. The Modern and Pfizer vaccines require two shots.
Also, it needs only to be kept at refrigerator temperatures for storage, rather than at freezer temperature or colder.
And lastly, Johnson & Johnson can make billions, rather than millions, of doses.
Because of the variants and the clinical consequences as well as the continued evolution of mutants, the incentive is to vaccine many people quickly, he said.
Currently, on a seven-day average, the United States is vaccinating 1.2 million people per day.
"We view this number as a base to build from in coming days, weeks, months," said Andy Slavitt, senior advisor to the White House COVID-19 Response Team.
The U.S. has delivered a total of 48 million doses and 26 million have been administered.
The challenges are to increase the supply of the vaccine and speed up the time it takes to administer them quickly and equitably, Slavitt said.
Slavitt gave a shout-out to seven states that have administered vaccines to at least 10% of their population: Alaska, West Virginia, New Mexico, Connecticut, North Dakota, South Dakota and Oklahoma.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has increased its support for vaccination sites through $1 billion in funding to have over 200 FEMA staff members on the ground to administer the vaccine, Slavitt said. More vaccinators in the field, including retired physicians and nurses who have been enlisted to deliver the vaccine.
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