On Jan. 4, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson made yet another somber coronavirus-related address to the nation: A COVID-19 variant first identified in Kent, England, was thought to be between 50%-70% more infectious. In a little over a week, hospital admissions had increased by nearly a third. Deaths had risen by 20%. Johnson ordered the country’s third full national lockdown since the start of the pandemic.
“That means,” Johnson said, gravely, “the government is once again instructing you to stay at home. You may only leave home for limited reasons permitted in law, such as to shop for essentials, to work if you absolutely cannot work from home, to exercise, to seek medical assistance such as getting a COVID test or to escape domestic abuse.”
On Monday, amid a dramatic drop in coronavirus infections, Britain’s leader will unveil his plan for unwinding one of the world’s strictest COVID-19 lockdowns. Only Cuba has tougher restrictions in place, according to an index of government measures compiled by Our World in Data, a research unit attached to Oxford University.
The COVID-19 Government Stringency Index looks at nine different national coronavirus response indicators including school and workplace closures, travel bans, and limits on public and family gatherings. Thomas Hale, one of the researchers behind the index, said it does conceal some local and regional variations – particularly in places such as the U.S., where city, state and federal authorities rely on a patchwork of coronavirus measures – but overall it is still instructive.
Out of a possible score of 100, Britain hit 86.11 on the index on Feb. 18.
The U.S. figure was 68.06.
In Cuba, where even road access to the Caribbean nation’s capital Havana is restricted, the number is 90.74.
‘Like wildfire’: B.1.1.7 may soon dominate across the US
American public health officials will be watching what Johnson says closely, not least because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) believes that by as early as the end of next month B.1.1.7, the more transmissible COVID-19 variant originally identified in Britain in September, is likely to be the dominant one circulating within U.S. borders.
The U.S. has seen peaks and declines of COVID-19 cases since the first infections were reported in North America in January 2020, but there are concerns that the B.1.1.7 variation is among a number of different COVID-19 variants that could help precipitate a so-called fourth wave of American coronavirus infections.
Trevor Bedford, an epidemiologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, said in a Twitter thread on Thursday that a steady decline in U.S. coronavirus cases that has brought levels back to where they were in late October could be threatened by the “rapid take-off of B.1.1.7.” He said there is evidence that the B.1.1.7 variant “will reach 50% frequency in the U.S. perhaps by late March.”
However, Bedford noted that it was unclear whether B.1.1.7 would “‘win’ against further improvements to seasonality and immunity,” meaning, among things, warmer temperatures and higher vaccinations rate across the U.S.. “I’m not sure at this point how much of a spring B.1.1.7 wave to expect,” he said.
In the U.S., there were 1,523 cases of B.1.1.7 reported across 42 states as of Feb. 18, according to CDC data. To put that in perspective, though new coronavirus infections in the U.S. have been falling broadly for about a month, the daily new case count for February is still averaging about 95,000, according to a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins University data. Across February, U.S. coronavirus deaths have averaged about 2,520 per day.
In Britain, new daily coronavirus case counts have been hovering at about 12,000 for the last week. Christina Pagel, who leads a team of researchers at University College London who apply mathematics to problems in health care, said the B.1.1.7 variant now makes up about 90% of new cases in Britain.
Concerning new variants have also emerged from Brazil, South Africa and California. Researchers say the U.S. is almost certainly undercounting cases of the B.1.1.7 variant. The case count has more than quadrupled since Jan. 27.
“It (B.1.1.7) spreads so easily, like wildfire. It’s really caught us by surprise,” Carl Waldmann, the director of an intensive care unit at a hospital in Reading, in southeast England, told German state broadcaster Deutsche Welle.
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SOURCE: USA TODAY, Kim Hjelmgaard