Health officials warn of potential spring break COVID surge as Americans travel

Health officials are warning of a potential surge of COVID-19 cases around spring break. The warning comes as more than a million Americans traveled through U.S. airports on Monday. CBS News reporter Alex Tin joins CBSN's "Red & Blue" anchor Elaine Quijano with more on the variant that's expected to become dominant by April, as well as the latest on a new vaccine trial involving children as young as 6 months old.

Video Transcript

ELAINE QUIJANO: Mississippi has become the second state to make coronavirus vaccines available to all adults. Starting Tuesday, any resident over the age of 16 could make an appointment. It comes after the Biden administration called on all states to remove eligibility requirements for adults by May. Alaska was the first to do so.

Over 72 million people nationwide have received at least one shot, more than 39 million have been fully inoculated. That's just over 15% of the adult population. But despite progress, there are growing concerns as more states lift restrictions. It's still spring break season and experts are advising caution, considering the uptick in air travel and the spread of variant strains.

For more, let's bring in CBS News reporter Alex Tin. He has been covering the pandemic response of states nationwide. Hi there, Alex. Good to see you. So it seems that health officials are expressing cautious optimism. How many new cases is the US averaging? And what are potential problems in the near term?

ALEX TIN: Well, what we've seen is since that post-holiday surge over the winter, cases have really fallen in the United States. We had that concern last week and the week before about cases potentially plateauing. And the new case average, that's the average of new cases reported, is around 50,000 right now.

But what you're seeing is the obvious concern, not just with what we've seen on spring break beaches and bars of people not wearing masks, not social distancing, but also record numbers of travelers passing through American airports. This is yet another consecutive day where the Transportation Security Administration has reported these record numbers of people traveling at heights that we haven't seen since before the pandemic was declared last year. So obviously, that's concerning.

And then you have the concern about new variants that are spreading in the United States. The CDC director recently said that their models still estimate that the more transmissible B117 variant would likely become dominant in the United States by the end of March, early April. And you combine all of that with concerns over states that have lifted some of their own restrictions after cases dipped following the holidays, removing requirements to wear masks, allowing for more in-person dining, things that health experts and the CDC say are conclusively linked to surges in new cases and new hospitalizations.

ELAINE QUIJANO: So Alex, with that as our backdrop, the Biden administration is launching a major COVID-19 education campaign while trying to stave off another potential wave. What can you tell us about that?

ALEX TIN: Well, to be clear, the federal government has been doing COVID-19 outreach for a while. In fact, the CDC has been saying for months now that they've been relying on so-called "trusted messengers." That's people who live in communities, whether they're pastors or community leaders or faith leaders, to speak to the people in their communities and say, you know, we understand the concerns you have about the vaccine. It is valid to have concerns about this vaccine.

But here are the answers to those concerns. Here's the truth about the fact that they were tested, the fact that they underwent rigorous review by the FDA and an independent body that looked at that data. Here's the fact that there will be some side effects, but those side effects are probably outweighed by the risk of what you and your community could experience if you got COVID-19. So that's a message that we've seen coming from the CDC going to these trusted messengers for months.

But in addition to that, we are expecting a big national rollout of a focused national campaign of ads and other types of outreach from HHS. That's the Health and Human Services administration. Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, who is the chair of the health equity task force, said this weekend on "Face the Nation" that they were planning that rollout this week. And what we'll probably see from that is many of those same messages, but on a national scale, potentially with celebrities or other high-profile figures.

But again, to reiterate, what we've heard from federal health officials and from health experts is that the real messages that can really penetrate that problem of vaccine hesitancy, of people who are concerned about getting the vaccine because either they don't know enough about it or they've heard things that make them distrust or dislike it, that the best way to reach those communities, to reach those people who they need to get the vaccine is through trusted messengers, people in the community who can answer their questions, even the doctors themselves.

There was a webinar today that had a top official from the CDC, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, who's head of their vaccine effort, who told Stat News that essentially, even in Republican and Democrat communities all around the country, the number one most trusted person for making health care decisions is their doctor. And those are the people they're hoping to channel these messages.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Well, let's talk vaccine specific. Some European countries are temporarily banning the use of AstraZeneca's vaccine while investigating blood clots in a small number of people who received the shot. Now this comes as Italy is reimposing regional lockdowns to fight rising cases. AstraZeneca's vaccine remains in the trial stages in the US. So Alex, what are health experts saying?

ALEX TIN: Well, what we've heard from health experts is similar to what we've heard about these kinds of sporadic reports of side effect for the Pfizer and Moderna and Janssen vaccines as well, which is side effects have occurred, and occasionally there are these so-called serious adverse events after taking the vaccine. But number one, in most of those cases, those issues aren't even linked to the vaccine. And what you heard from AstraZeneca after the first reports of these concerns first came out was they looked at the data, and they claim that the rate of blood clots is no different, no greater than in the general population of people who get blood clots in-- in their daily lives with or without a COVID-19 vaccine.

So that's what you've heard from the drug makers. That's what you've heard from the health experts. But what health authorities in Europe say is they want to complete their investigation into the side effects before releasing more vaccine. But of course, the criticism there is that the less people you have vaccinated, the slower your vaccination campaign goes, the slower it is that people are getting that protection against COVID-19, and potentially more lives are being risked the longer that you postpone that.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Finally, Alex, on Tuesday, Moderna announced it will begin testing its coronaviruses vaccine on young children. Alex, what ages are we talking about here?

ALEX TIN: So what we're talking about is the latest what they called so-called age de-escalation strategy in their trials as they've moved this vaccine into lower and lower age groups. So we started with adolescents after they finished their adult clinical trials. After adolescents, they've moved to these younger age groups. And the one that you heard announced today was an age of six months to 12 years.

So that's a very low age group. And of course, the hope is that the data they will generate through these trials will reflect what they've seen in their other trials in older adults, both here in the United States and around the world, which is that the vaccine has been safe and effective, and hopefully could pave the way to the Moderna vaccine being authorized in the United States for use in those younger populations, potentially as early as 2022 or 2023.

ELAINE QUIJANO: All right, so many parents interested in what comes of those trials. Alex Tin. Alex, great to have you. Thank you so much.

ALEX TIN: Thank you.