As confirmed daily coronavirus cases remain over 50,000 and certain localities face new surges, a doctor stressed that new virus mutations could prolong the pandemic.

“The thing that worries me is that there are still so many infections that we give the virus an opportunity to mutate,” Dr. Jeremy Faust, an emergency medicine physician at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, said on Yahoo Finance Live (video above). “Once in a while, one of those mutations does crop up in a way that can hurt us. So what I keep hoping that I won’t wake up and read in the next paper is that now I’ve got one that’s 10 times worse or one that hits kids harder.”

The current 7-day average for hospitalizations in the U.S. is at 5,631, a 1.6% increase from the prior week. The CDC noted that while hospitalizations have declined since their peak in January 2021, they have been steadily increasing since March 22.

“As we move through the population and vaccinate more people, there’s a point there that at some point, if I get a mild case of COVID but I don’t really notice it, then my case doesn’t really matter,” Faust said. “As long as I’m not spreading it to others, who could be harmed? So for me, a really good metric to watch is hospitalizations. Hospitalizations give you a pretty good sense of how people are doing in the community.”

‘The more people who are not vaccinated, the more infections we have’

Nearly 90 million American adults are fully vaccinated, while roughly 135 million have received at least one dose. For the U.S. to reach herd immunity, an estimated 75-80% needs to be fully vaccinated.

“Herd immunity is going to be a moving target because natural immunity could wane,” Faust said. “We don’t know how long the vaccine immunity will last, although I’m pretty optimistic it will last a while. To me, the way you know you’re at a place where you can return to normal is if our rates of flu-like illnesses and COVID-like illnesses are close to our historical norms — not the norms of the last 15 months. I want to see a sustained low level of hospitalizations.”

All three of the major vaccines available in the U.S. — from Pfizer (PFE), Moderna (MRNA), and Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) — have proven to be effective against severe COVID-19 infections. 

However, those efficacy rates can decrease when up against certain variants.

There are currently three main variants (also known as mutant strains) that have spread around the world: the B.117 (the British variant), the B.1.351 (the South African variant), and the P.1 (the Brazilian variant). The British variant now accounts for the majority of newer cases in the U.S.

“So far, the variants have represented incremental setbacks, a little bit of breakthrough on mild infections,” Faust said. “The B.117 variant might have a slight uptick in mortality, is certainly more contagious, but not really changing the whole shape of the pandemic, not like a total cataclysmic change.”

Customers eat at the bar inside Mo's Irish Pub Wednesday, March 10, 2021, in Houston. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott allowed the state mandates for COVID-19 safety measures to expire Wednesday. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Customers eat at the bar inside Mo’s Irish Pub on March 10 in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Given the potential for variants to prolong the pandemic, Faust is advocating for vaccinating younger people as quickly as possible to prevent prolonged transmission levels.

“There’s a prevailing feeling that if you’re not an old person, that you don’t have to worry about this virus, and then if you’ve gotten infected, you’d just gain natural immunity and move on with your lives,” Faust said. “The problem there is the more people who are not vaccinated, the more infections we have. And infections are where mutations occur, where variants emerged from.”

Adriana Belmonte is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. You can follow her on Twitter @adrianambells and reach her at [email protected].


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