WASHINGTON, D.C. (NBC) — Concerns are growing over coronavirus variants that are gaining a foothold in the US. Experts believe not only that the variants could lead to another surge but that it may already be underway.
At the same time, the CDC director was grilled by GOP lawmakers Wednesday about who is to blame for the high number of deaths from the pandemic.
Not once, not twice, but three times CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky refused to say if she would blame Former President Trump for 500,000 American deaths.
Rep. David Mckinley (R-WV) asked Walensky, “Is that an accurate statement, that Trump killed 500,000 people?”
“I came into this office on 2020 and on January 20th,” she responded.
“Did he or did he not kill 500,000 people?”
Walensky said, “I think the effect of this pandemic is multifactorial.”
Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL) said, “I would really appreciate it if you could give us a straight answer, yes or no.”
“There are many, many reasons why we as a country were ill-prepared to tackle this pandemic that resulted in over 500,000 deaths,” Walensky said.
For now, the new administration is working to keep the focus on a ramp-up in vaccinations nationwide.
Over 73 million people have received at least one dose of vaccine. Nearly 40 million are now fully vaccinated.
President Joe Biden is focusing on the next hurdle ahead: vaccine hesitancy.
Biden said, “I don’t understand this sort of macho thing about ‘I’m not going to get the vaccine, I have a right as an American, my freedom to not do it.’ Well, why don’t you be a patriot and protect other people?”
The urgency to get as many people vaccinated as possible growing as the CDC officially labels five strains of the virus already detected in the US as variants of concern. Meaning they could be more transmissible, and perhaps less treatable.
President of Access Health International Dr. William Haseltine said, “We don’t have enough people vaccinated yet to make a real difference in infections.”
Those variants are fueling worries about another surge with warning signs already appearing in states across the country.
Nationally, new cases remain down overall but 14 states are reporting a weekly increase of more than 10%.
Delaware, Montana and Alabama, all posting gains of more than 30 percent, with Michigan leading the way where cases there are up a whopping 53 percent since last week.
Dr. Ashish Jha with Brown University School of Public Health said, “It’s going to be a close call. We are vaccinating really well. That’s the good news. These variants are spreading quickly across the country. That’s the bad news.”
Spring breakers are flooding beaches and bars in some cities. That’s worrying to health officials, combined with St. Patrick’s Day parties.
The CDC hasn’t yet issued updated travel guidance for people who are fully vaccinated.
Director Walensky said, “We are revisiting the travel question. That’s a really key question.”
Yet there’s already a new record stretch of air travel. According to the TSA, more than seven million people flying in just the last six days.
FDA Vaccine Advisory Committee member Dr. Paul Offit said, “I do think the next six to eight weeks could be rough.”
The variants of concern include two versions of the virus discovered in California and the one first found in the UK.