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With states reopening widely, new COVID hotspots surface

The number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. have reduced substantially since the height of the last wave, but with states reopening widely those numbers are spiking again. New data shows the development of several hotspots, with new cases up in 15 states over the past week. Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University, joins William Brangham to discuss the rise.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Coronavirus cases in the United States are down substantially from the height of the last wave, but new data indicates hot spots are picking up once again.

    William Brangham has the details.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy.

    New cases are popping up in 15 states over the past week, including states like New York, New Jersey and Tennessee. And there's concern about hot spots emerging in Minnesota and Michigan.

    All of this, of course, comes as many states are reopening even more widely. And, overall, new infections are still high. Nearly 60,000 were reported yesterday. There were 1,100 more deaths. And the U.S. is now closing in on an overall toll of 540,000 people who have died.

    Dr. Ashish Jha is back with us again. He is the dean of the School Of Public Health at Brown University.

    Ashish, very good to see you again.

    We were what seemed like on a pretty solid decline for many weeks. Now that seems to have plateaued. And, as we're reporting, there are upticks in certain places. What is going on?

  • Dr. Ashish Jha:

    Yes, so, William, thanks for having me on.

    I will tell you what's happening here. This is really an effect of variants and one specific variant, the B117, a variant initially found in the U.K.

    It is now probably 40 percent of all infections, maybe 50 percent maybe of all infections, in the United States, and, before the end of this month, will be close to 90 or 100 percent of the infections. It's a much more contagious variant. And it is spreading more quickly.

    And this is the variant that's causing the problems in Europe, leading to lockdowns. And it is really slowing down our decline in the United States.

  • William Brangham:

    As you were saying, this is known to be a more contagious variant.

    Does the evidence seem clear to you, as I have read in some places, that this is also a variant that is likely to make people sicker? And, thus, if so, would we see a rise in hospitalizations and deaths coming down the road?

  • Ashish Jha:

    Yes, so there is no doubt about the contagiousness. It is a far more contagious virus

    On the issue of, is it more lethal if you get it, there is some evidence to suggest that it might be. The best news about this — about this variant is that our vaccines work really well against that. There's no problem in terms of vaccine efficacy against this variant.

    In terms of hospitalizations and deaths, we do have one advantage, which is, we have managed to vaccinate a lot of older people and high-risk people, not everybody, but a lot of them. And so I'm hoping that, while we might see a bump in hospitalizations, it won't be anything like the winter surge that we saw.

  • William Brangham:

    Do you think that there's a possibility that some of this uptick is also people just, frankly, being sick of the pandemic, and they're letting their guard down?

  • Ashish Jha:

    No doubt about it.

    I mean, we have seen states starting to open up. A lot of states are going to full restaurant capacity. And this is not the moment to do it. I don't think we're that far away from the moment where we can open things up much more in a way that's safe. We're probably four weeks away from, maybe six weeks away from that time period. We're not quite there yet.

    And I think some places are — some states are just going a little too fast.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, as Judy mentioned, President Biden said today that we're going to hit the 100 million vaccination mark tomorrow. That's, I think, over a quarter of the country.

    It seems we are so close. And yet — I don't know. Do you share that real concern that this might be a moment where we let our guard down, and this gets out of our hands again?

  • Ashish Jha:

    Yes, it's been such a long pandemic, and here we are. I sort of feel like we're at the five-yard line, and we have got the ball, and we should just hold on to the ball. But what's happening is, we want to stop.

    Look, we are — I think, by mid to late April, every high-risk person who wants a vaccine, we will have gotten one. At that point, it becomes much safer to start relaxing public health measures.

    And that's what we have to do, and that's what we should be doing. So, this is not about wait another three months or six months. This is literally mid to late April. People are tired, and states are opening up. I understand. And I wish we could just hold on a little bit longer.

  • William Brangham:

    Just weeks away, as you say.

    About the AstraZeneca news, we saw today that the U.S. announced that they're going to send several million doses to Canada and to Mexico. This is a drug that has been used all over Europe and elsewhere, but has not been approved for use here in the U.S. We now have heard the European medical agency say that they don't think that there's a health risk with this vaccine.

    Are you glad to see the U.S. finally shipping this vaccine abroad?

  • Ashish Jha:

    I am. I am.

    We have about 30 million doses stockpiled. It's not authorized for use in the United States. I think that, at earliest, it'll be authorized in probably a month-and-a-half or two. By that time, we're going to have so much vaccines that we're probably not going to need to use the AstraZeneca vaccine. It is a very good vaccine. It's made a big impact in the U.K. Europe is using it.

    There's no reason for us to be stockpiling and keeping 30 million doses of a vaccine that we are unlikely to ever use. I would much rather get it out to countries that could use it now to save lives. And we will be fine. It will have no impact on Americans' ability to get vaccinated.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, always good to have you. Thank you.

  • Ashish Jha:

    Thank you.

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