As new coronavirus strains spread, the CDC urges vaccinations and vigilance

The Biden Administration says about 1 in 5 American adults and nearly half of people over 65 have now received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

As the US pushes to speed up the vaccine rollout, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky says the number of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths, which had been dropping steadily for several weeks, appears to have hit a plateau over the last few days.

"We are watching these concerning data to see where it goes in the coming days, but it's important to see where we are in the pandemic," Dr. Walensky says.  "Things are tenuous."

She says the US is averaging about 70,000 new coronavirus cases a day, and hospitalizations and deaths remain very high.

The CDC has been sounding the alarm about the spread of new variants of the coronavirus, like the B117 strain, which is thought to be 50% more transmissible than the currently circulating or "wild" strain.

"We may now be seeing the beginning effects of these variants in the most recent data," Dr. Walensky says.  "Our estimate now indicates that B117 accounts for approximately 10% of cases in the United States, up from 1% to 4% a few weeks ago."

Dr. Walensky is urging Americans to stay vigilant, wearing masks, staying 6 feet from others in public and getting vaccinated when it is their turn.

"We may be done with the virus, but the virus is not done with us," she says.  "We cannot get comfortable or give in to a false sense of security that the worst of the pandemic is behind us.  Not now, not when mass vaccination is so very close, when what we need is truly imminent."

The Biden Administration issued a "call to action" Friday to the US business community, urging business leaders to require masks and social distancing on their premises and to reduce barriers that employees face in getting vaccinated.

Employers are being urged to offer paid time off to offer employees to get their shots and offer financial incentives to those getting vaccinated.

The US could soon have a third vaccine, this one from Johnson & Johnson.

An FDA advisory committee is meeting Friday to evaluate the safety and efficacy of the one-dose vaccine.

The agency is expected to grant an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) to clear the way for the vaccine.

"Following FDA's actions, CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, or ACIP, is prepared to meet over the weekend and continue -- the same data being discussed at FDA's advisory meeting," Dr. Walensky says. "Then, ACIP will make recommendations for the use of the vaccine, and I will stand by to review them and be ready to sign. "

Health officials are hoping the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will boost supplies as the US tries to vaccinate as many Americans as possible ahead of the variants' spread.

"Together we have the capacity to prevent another surge in our nation," Dr. Walensky says.  "I know people are tired.  They want to get back to life, to normal.  But, we're not there yet.  Give us more time to get more vaccines into our communities and more people vaccinated.  This is our path out."

Asked how close the country could be to getting back to normal, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief medical advisor to President Biden, says the daily case numbers remain too high.

"Certainly, 70,00 is not there, not even close," Dr. Fauci says.  "You've got to get way down in the test positivity and at the same time that you are scaling up the vaccine.  Hopefully, that's not too far in the distant future."

Fauci says between March and May, the US should see a major boost in the vaccine supply.

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