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U.S. tops 18M cases; experts say new COVID-19 strain may already be here

By
Don Jacobson
Masked workers shovel snow off of steps and surfaces in New York City's Times Square last Thursday, in front of a sign that honors front-line health workers and other essential workers as heroes. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI
Masked workers shovel snow off of steps and surfaces in New York City's Times Square last Thursday, in front of a sign that honors front-line health workers and other essential workers as "heroes." Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

Dec. 22 (UPI) -- New coronavirus cases and deaths in the United States are again at lower levels, according to updated data from Johns Hopkins University -- but the case count was enough to push the total number over the 18 million mark on Tuesday.

According to the Johns Hopkins data, there were 190,500 new COVID-19 cases on Monday and about 1,700 deaths. Both were a slight increase over Sunday's figures.

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Since the start of the pandemic, there have been 18.04 million coronavirus cases and about 319,500 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins.

Hospitalized patients nationwide resumed an upward trajectory on Monday, with a record total of 115,400, according to the COVID Tracking Project. Before Monday, they had been below 114,000 for three straight days.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday that a COVID-19 variant identified in Britain has not yet been seen in the United States.

Since last month, the variant strain has become prevalent in southeastern Britain and accounted for about six in 10 new cases in London, British health officials said. The variant has led several countries to ban travel to Britain.

The CDC said in its advisory Tuesday that the strain has not yet been seen in the United States, but cautioned that the sample sizes have been small.

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"[The variant] has not been identified through sequencing efforts in the United States, although viruses have only been sequenced from about 51,000 of the 17 million U.S. cases," CDC scientists wrote.

"Ongoing travel between the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as the high prevalence of this variant among current U.K. infections, increase the likelihood of importation," they added. "Given the small fraction of U.S. infections that have been sequenced, the variant could already be in the United States without having been detected."

The scientists also noted that there's no evidence yet that the variant causes more severe COVID-19 or a greater risk of death.

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Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious diseases expert, said Tuesday it's reasonable to assume that the variant has already arrived in in the United States.

"When you have this amount of spread within a place like the U.K., you really need to assume that it's here already," he told ABC's Good Morning America.

"It certainly is not the dominant strain, but I would not be surprised at all if it's already here."

CNN reported Tuesday that both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are testing their vaccines against the new strain. Both vaccines are being distributed nationwide.

The head of the European Union's top medical regulator, the CEO of BioNTech and former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Stephen Gottlieb have all said it's likely the new vaccines will be effective in blocking the British mutation.

In other COVID-19 developments Tuesday:

  • Fauci, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins and front-line healthcare workers at the NIH will be among some of the first to receive doses of Moderna's newly approved vaccine on Tuesday.
  • President Donald Trump is expected to sign the $900 billion relief bill on Tuesday, and the attached omnibus spending package that will keep the government running until at least next October.

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