U.S. seeks to calm fears of UK virus variant as U.S. infections top 18 million

By Susan Heavey and Gabriella Borter WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Total U.S. COVID-19 cases surpassed 18 million on Tuesday as health officials tried to tamp down fears about a new, highly transmissible variant of the coronavirus in the United Kingdom

Reuters December 23, 2020 04:10:09 IST
U.S. seeks to calm fears of UK virus variant as U.S. infections top 18 million

US seeks to calm fears of UK virus variant as US infections top 18 million

By Susan Heavey and Gabriella Borter

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Total U.S. COVID-19 cases surpassed 18 million on Tuesday as health officials tried to tamp down fears about a new, highly transmissible variant of the coronavirus in the United Kingdom.

Reports of the new virus variant in England, which prompted a pre-Christmas lockdown and caused dozens of countries to close their borders to British travelers this week, have spurred talks among U.S. state officials of mandatory COVID-19 testing for travelers from the UK and a possible quarantine mandate.

News of the mutated variant comes as the United States faces a surge in new infections that is overwhelming some hospitals. The latest million new cases were recorded in just six days, according to a Reuters tally, as U.S. COVID-19 fatalities approach 320,000, the most of any country in the world.

In California, where Los Angeles area hospitals have no free intensive care unit beds, health officials are warning Americans not to gather for holiday celebrations this month to avoid further patient overload.

"If you want to celebrate next year with your family, your friends, your loved ones, now is the time to be disciplined," Thomas McGinn, an executive vice president at Dignity Health in California, told reporters on Tuesday.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said on Tuesday that the UK coronavirus variant had not yet been detected in the United States, and some U.S. health officials sought to assuage fears about it.

U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar told Fox News that the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, which received U.S. emergency use authorizations this month, should be effective at preventing illness from the variant of the virus.

Moderna Inc and BioNTech SE, which worked with Pfizer Inc to develop its vaccine, are scrambling to test their shots against the variant, but expressed confidence in them.

"Scientifically it is highly likely that the immune response by this vaccine can also deal with this virus variant," BioNTech Chief Executive Ugur Sahin told reporters.

More than 600,000 Americans, mostly healthcare workers, received their first COVID-19 vaccine doses as of Monday, according to the CDC.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease official, said on Tuesday that spread of the virus variant needs to be monitored but officials should not overreact.

"Travel bans are really rather draconian things to do," Fauci told ABC News' "Good Morning America."

Fauci, Azar and National Institutes of Health (NIH) head Dr. Francis Collins all received the Moderna shot - which the NIH helped develop - on live television on Tuesday.

'EVERYTHING NEEDS TO BE ON THE TABLE'

On Monday, the White House coronavirus task force discussed the possibility of requiring all passengers traveling from the UK to receive a negative test within 72 hours of departure to avoid importing the variant. But Washington does not plan to implement that rule for now, people briefed on the matter said on Tuesday.

Michael Osterholm, a pandemic adviser for President-elect Joe Biden, said all options need to be considered, and he urged the Trump administration to come up with a plan now, even as the Biden team prepares to take office on Jan. 20.

"We really need to develop a national response," he told CNN. "Everything needs to be on the table."

He said the United States could mandate a 14-day quarantine for travelers from the UK as an added precaution beyond requiring a negative test result.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee on Monday mandated a 14-day quarantine for travelers arriving in his state from the UK, South Africa or other "countries with circulation of a new, potentially more contagious COVID-19 variation."

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said he asked airlines to add his state to a list of 120 countries that require COVID-19 screening for incoming air travelers.

"The United States should say the same thing that New York said. Say that people need to test before they come from the UK," Cuomo said on a Tuesday call with reporters.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Lisa Lambert in Washington, Jill Serjeant in Los Angeles, Peter Szekely and Gabriella Borter in New York and Anurag Maan in BengaluruWriting by Gabriella BorterEditing by Bill Berkrot, Cynthia Osterman and Matthew Lewis)

This story has not been edited by Firstpost staff and is generated by auto-feed.

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