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Experts urge faster vaccinations and efforts to curb spread in response to virus variants

A pharmacist prepares a dose of the Pfizer BioNTech coronavirus vaccine at a mass vaccination site at Fenway Park in Boston on Jan. 29, 2021. (Adam Glanzman/Bloomberg News)
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The pace of vaccinations appears to be slowly ticking up amid concerns about how the emergence of more transmissible coronavirus variants will affect U.S. efforts to crush the pandemic.

Saturday marked the third day in a row that more than 1.5 million coronavirus vaccine doses were given in the United States, according to a Washington Post tracker, and the 12th straight day that more than 1 million shots were given.

Meanwhile, experts are calling for dual efforts to address the emergence of the variants by ramping up vaccinations and by continuing to underline the need for safety protocols to curb transmission.

Here are some significant developments

  • Maryland on Saturday became the second state to report a case of the new coronavirus variant that was first found in South Africa.
  • The mass vaccination site at Dodger Stadium, one of the largest in the nation, was shuttered briefly Saturday because of maskless, anti-vaccine demonstrators.
  • A group of 10 Senate Republicans announced plans to release a compromise covid relief package and have requested a meeting with President Biden to discuss it.
  • As states speed up the rollout of vaccines by prioritizing people 65 and older, some, including essential workers, are getting pushed back in the queue, according to experts, union officials and workers.

Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said the variants signal that “this virus is going to continue to mutate as long as it’s allowed to thrive in the world.”

“It’s important for us to really do what we can to contain this virus,” Inglesby said in an interview on “Fox News Sunday.”

“Wear masks, avoid social gatherings, decrease social interaction until we get this under control,” he said. “And, certainly, if you have a chance to get vaccinated, if you’re eligible for vaccine, you should get vaccinated.”

Biden has signaled an accelerated goal for vaccinations as his administration continues to tackle the complex mass vaccination campaign. After touting a goal of 100 million shots in 100 days, Biden suggested that he hoped for a figure closer to 1.5 million coronavirus shots in arms per day.

“I think, with the grace of God, and the goodwill of the neighbor, and the creek not rising, as the old saying goes, I think we may be able to get that to 1.5 million a day, rather than 1 million a day,” Biden said Monday. “But we have to meet that goal of a million a day.”

Coronavirus mutations add urgency to vaccination effort as experts warn of long battle ahead

Experts say a faster pace for vaccinations will be key.

Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and an adviser to Biden’s coronavirus task force, said it may be time to “call an audible” on vaccine distribution in response to the growing risk from variants. He called for prioritizing first vaccine doses ahead of a variant-fueled surge in cases.

Osterholm said he expects to see a surge of cases in the next “six-to-14 weeks” from variants, such as the mutation first identified in Britain.

“If we see that happen, which my 45 years in the trenches tells us we will, we are going to see something like we have not seen yet in this country,” he said in an interview Sunday on NBC News’s “Meet the Press.”

“We still want to get two doses in everyone,” Osterholm added, but in advance of a surge, “we need to get as many one doses in as many people over 65 as we possibly can to reduce the serious illness and deaths that are going to occur over the weeks ahead.”

Florida has the largest number of cases from virus variants, with 125 as of Saturday, according to Washington Post data, followed closely by California with 113 cases from variants.

Scott Gottlieb, a former director of the Food and Drug Administration, warned that Miami and parts of Southern California are at the “highest risk” of becoming overrun by variants, specifically pointing to the variant first found in Britain.

“What we’re likely to see is regionalized epidemics with this new variant, and the two places in the country right now that are the biggest hot spots are Southern California and southern Florida, Miami. Those cities need to be very mindful of the spread of these variants,” Gottlieb said Sunday on CBS News’s “Face the Nation.”

He said vaccinations could help curb that spread.

“As we immunize more of the population, and if people continue to wear masks and be vigilant in these parts of the country, we can keep this at bay," he said. “It’s not too late, but it’s a real risk to those regions of the country right now.”

Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned in a tweet that the virus could eventually evolve to a point where vaccines may not be protective.

“The Covid variants identified so far are an early warning that the virus could evolve to escape vaccine protection,” Frieden wrote. “The way to prevent that is to BOTH ramp up vaccinations and control spread.”

Richard Besser, the president and chief executive of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and a former acting director of the CDC, said discussions on increasing vaccinations should include deliberations on getting vaccines to the most vulnerable individuals.

“The more important question to me is, can we get vaccines to those people who are at the greatest risk, being infected, being hospitalized and dying?” Besser said Sunday on ABC News’s “This Week.”

He suggested more data was needed to understand whom the vaccines are reaching.

Few states are accurately tracking coronavirus vaccinations by race. Some aren’t at all.

“If we don’t do a better job at getting vaccines to those people who are working, who are out there face-to-face every day to put food on the table and to pay the rent, people who are going to work to keep our economy going,” Besser said, "...we could see the same kind of disparities that we’re currently seeing and this same incredible toll in terms of death.”

As health experts call for continued adherence to pandemic protocols, Osterholm also said it’s especially important that people wear face masks properly.

We see up to 25 percent of people wear it under their nose. You know that’s like fixing three of the five screen doors in your submarine,” he said on “Meet the Press.” “What’s going on there? We’ve got to get people to start using these right.”

Jacqueline Dupree and Amy B Wang contributed to this report.