Dangerous coronavirus variants spread across U.S. as states ease restrictions

The dangerous coronavirus variant first discovered in Brazil is now in two more U.S. states. Health officials are raising concerns about the possibility of a fourth surge if states lift restrictions too quickly. Dr. Teresa Amato, the director of emergency medicine at Long Island Jewish Forest Hills, joined CBSN to discuss the latest.

Video Transcript

ELAINE QUIJANO: The dangerous coronavirus variant first discovered in Brazil is now in two more US states. California and Massachusetts are the latest to report cases. Health officials are worried more contagious variants could spread rapidly as more states lift restrictions.

More than 29.5 million cases have been confirmed in the US, and more than 536,000 people have died. But vaccinations are offering a ray of hope. Some states are now expanding vaccine eligibility. So far, more than 11% of the US population is now fully vaccinated, and more than 72 million people are, at least, halfway there.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, vaccination efforts are stumbling. More countries have suspended the use of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine after less than 40 recipients developed blood clots, but the company insists, its vaccine is safe to use. We'll have more on this in a moment, but first, we turn to Jonathan Vigliotti in California.

JONATHAN VIGLIOTTI: Elaine, the new strain of the Brazilian variant has been detected here for the first time in the state, renewing urgency to vaccinate. Meanwhile, tonight, there's encouraging news from Moderna now testing its vaccine on children.

Tonight, Moderna becoming the first US drug maker to vaccinate children, testing the shot on babies as young as six months up to kids under 12. The company also running a trial in kids over 12. Two of the participants are Dylan and Blair Davis. Their parents, both doctors.

- I wanted them to be an example and set an example to say, hey, this vaccine is safe.

- Promising news for kids and parents.

ANTHONY FAUCI: So we would expect that children going into high school in the fall will be able to go in vaccinated.

- And the Florida baby has been born with COVID antibodies. It's the first known case. The mother, a health care worker, who received her initial dose of the Moderna vaccine, while pregnant. Tonight, Mississippi is expanding vaccinations to all adult residents 16 and older. Connecticut and Michigan, announcing they'll do the same on April 5. Thanks in part to vaccinations, California is beginning to experience normal life again.

- It's really fun and nice, because we haven't been in, like, a year.

- But this comes as San Bernardino reports a case of the worrisome P1 variant initially detected in Brazil, the first case in California. It's already in, at least, 11 other states.

How concerned should we be when we hear about these variants taking root here in America?

- Well, I think the reality is no one knows. The fact is cases are declining, despite variants being present. What the average American should be doing is focusing on getting vaccinated.

- And tonight, COVID trading March Madness at the NCAA. Six referees sent home from the men's tournament after one positive test and contact tracing. Jonathan Vigliotti, CBS News, Rancho Cucamonga, California.

CHARLIE D'AGATA: I'm Charlie D'agata in London, where Europe is in the grip of a deadly third wave of COVID cases, filling ICUs and sending towns and cities in Italy back into lockdown.

- [NON-ENGLISH] AstraZeneca.

- In a further blow to the vaccine roll out there, France, Germany, Italy, and today, Sweden have become among 16 European nations that have halted the use of the Oxford AstraZeneca shot after reports of blood clotting. But AstraZeneca says, a review of 17 million people in the UK and Europe who have received the vaccine found fewer than 40 developed blood clots, lower than would be expected to occur in the general population. Today, even the European Medicines Agency, the FDA of Europe, urged that vaccinations should continue.

- Even if this association is causal, which I think most people doubt, then the evidence is still very strongly that, if you want to live, the best thing you can do is have the vaccine.

- The benefits far outweigh the risks.

- Absolutely, absolutely.

- But widespread distrust of the Oxford vaccine is the result of a series of missteps, including inconclusive trial data, mistakes in dosing schedules, and a shortfall in supplies to Europe. That ongoing skepticism may now end up costing lives.

The Oxford vaccine is expected to be rolled out in the United States in the coming weeks. The government has ordered 300 million doses pending FDA approval. AstraZeneca plans to apply for that approval in early April. Elaine?

- Charlie D'agata, thank you. For more, Dr. Teresa Amato joins me now. She's the director of emergency medicine at Long Island Jewish Forrest Hills. Doctor, welcome. Thanks very much for joining us. So Moderna began testing its coronavirus vaccine on babies and young children. Remind us, why is it important to test vaccines on children separately, and what are experts looking for?

TERESA AMATO: So what we want to make sure is that the vaccine is effective, it's safe, and we have to know what dosage that we give a child. So we always say that children aren't just little people. They also have different metabolic rates, and they get rid of things and absorb things differently, whether through their kidneys or their livers.

They just work a little different than grown ups. So while we know the vaccine is safe and effective in adults, we really have to find out what dosage will we need to give a child that would keep it safe, but also, keep it effective. So very excited that they're starting to do this in children, and hopefully, that means in the fall, we'll have some vaccinated kids to get back to school.

- Well, more than 39 million Americans are now fully vaccinated against the virus. Some states are beginning to expand vaccine eligibility. At this point, do you think more states should be doing that?

- So I think when we talk about vaccine and vaccine rollouts, you know, there's three things you need. You need the supply. You need the accessibility, and then you need to have people that are wanting to have the vaccine.

We're going to see some hesitancy in different populations, and we don't want that hesitancy to stop other people who might want to get it from getting the vaccine. Because we know any vaccinated person could really be a person who would stop a transmission of another outbreak. So at this point, the states really have to look at their supply, how much access people have, and how willing people are to get the vaccine.

So if they have vaccine, and no one's taking it for different reasons, and we can get some people in that are in a younger age group, it still will decrease the transmission. We'd still like to see our people that are at risk, our older adults and people of color, getting those vaccines first. But at this point, I think each state is looking at how quickly can they get the large majority of their population vaccinated.

- Well, White House officials are preparing for a possible fourth coronavirus surge. What is the biggest threat right now?

- I think the fatigue of wearing masks, and social distancing, and avoiding large crowds. I mean, we say it, and we've said it for over a year. It gets exhausting to really think about having to do that at all anymore. The vaccines are coming, and I do think people are definitely letting their guards down a little bit, which is very understandable.

But at this point, every time the virus transmits, we know it can get a variation. Right now, it looks like our vaccines are still effective against the most common variant. But again, every time it gets transmitted, it can make a variation, and then we don't know if the vaccine is going to be effective. So we can decrease the transmission right now, while we're in the homestretch. That's really what we need to do to avoid a fourth surge.

- To follow up on that, according to the New York Times, some experts say, variants of the coronavirus may have evolved inside individuals with weaker immune systems. Doctor, how likely is this, and what might that mean for vaccination programs worldwide?

- So right now, it's a theory. Theoretically, people who have immune systems that don't work effectively maybe can't tamper down the virus quick enough. And every time the virus replicates, it can make itself a variant. So the theory is that, if I have an immune system that's not very strong, the virus can replicate very quickly within me. And when I now transmit it to another person, there could be many variations in a single virus or multiple viruses with multiple variations.

So the theory is, because they've seen some virus mutations that are a little bit more rapid than they would have expected, the thought is that, if my immune system isn't working quickly enough to tamper down the virus, it's going to replicate much quicker and have more chance of having a variation. So we have talked about immunizing people that have lower immune systems as a way to protect them, but it also turns out that might actually protect more people. Because we might be able to decrease the variations.

- All right, a theory that we'll continue to see what happens with the actual data on. Dr. Teresa Amato, doctor, thank you very much for your insight.

- Thank you so much for having me.