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The United States may now have its own locally evolved, fast-spreading strain of the virus that causes COVID-19, according to White House pandemic trackers.

If that’s true, public health officials need to ramp up testing and socially distancing efforts now to keep the new super-strain from making the pandemic worse, the pandemic trackers say.

The pandemic trackers are members of a working group at the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

The working group members talked about the possible rise of a new, aggressive, U.S.-evolved strain of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) — the virus that causes COVID-19 — in the recommendations section in their latest weekly state-level report set.

(Related: Task Force Reports COVID-19 Death Rate Increase)

The working group is the same body that has started posting detailed state-level and community-level data in the federal government’s Community Profile Report spreadsheet collection.

The federal government is sending the state-level reports to state officials and is not making those reports available directly to members of the public. The state-level reports provide much less detailed data than the Community Profile Report spreadsheets, but they give top-level summary data, and they also give the working group’s narrative assessment of the current pandemic situation.

Here’s what happened to some of the key national COVID-19 indicators included in the state-level reports between the week ending Dec. 25 and the week ending Jan. 1:

  • New Cases per 100,000 People: 413 (up from 391)
  • Percentage of People Tested Who Had COVID-19:  13.1% (up from 11.3%)
  • COVID-19 Deaths per 100,000: 5.3 (up from 5.1)
  • Nursing Homes With 1 or More New Resident COVID-19 Deaths: 15% (Down from 16%)

Although some national COVID-19 pandemic intensity indicators looked a little better last week than they looked the week before, that may be partly because overall data reporting has been unstable for the past week, working group members say.

Hospital data reporting has been more stable than other types of data reporting, working group members say.

“The United States remains at a high plateau of 140,000-150,000 confirmed and suspected COVID admissions per week and 120,000-125,000 total inpatients,” according to the working group. “Significant continued deterioration, from California across the Sunbelt and up into the Southeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Northeast, despite low testing rates during the holidays, suggests aggressive community spread.”

The United States experienced one COVID-19 surge in March and April, a second in late June, and a third that began around late September.

“This fall/winter surge has been at nearly twice the rate of rise of cases as the spring and summer surges,” the working group says.

New Strain

Public health officials in the United Kingdom and South Africa have reported identifying new strains of SARS-CoV-2 that spread more easily than the strains that have been infecting people up till now.

The recent U.S. COVID-19 surge “suggests there may be a USA variant that has evolved here, in addition to the UK variant, that is already spreading in our communities and may be 50% more transmissible,” the working group says. “Aggressive mitigation must be used to match a more aggressive virus; without uniform implementation of effective face-masking (two- or three ply and well-fitting) and strict social distancing, epidemics could quickly worsen as these variants spread and become predominant.”

Communities should encourage people under 40 to get tested even when they feel healthy, to keep them from spreading COVID-19 to household members, and communities should also create immediate testing and treatment programs for people at high risk for suffering from severe COVID-19, working group members say.

Working group members say communities should put any COVID-19 vaccines they have “in arms now,” to protect vulnerable people from the possibility that there could be a new, severe COVID-19 strain out there.

“No vaccines should be [sitting] in freezers,” the working group members say. “Active and aggressive immunization in the face of this surge would save lives.”

Communities should speed up vaccination efforts by using nursing students and emergency medical technicians to provide the required post-vaccination monitoring, working group members said.

Working group members gave Michigan and Nebraska as examples of states with good vaccination campaign dashboard websites.

— Read 50 States of Latest Government COVID-19 Pandemic Intensity Dataon ThinkAdvisor.

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