Push to vaccinate Americans against COVID-19 as states ease restrictions and variants spread

Health experts worry having fewer coronavirus restrictions in place nationwide could make it easier for variants to spread and possibly cause another surge. CBS News correspondent Carter Evans reports, and Dr. David Hirschwerk, an attending infectious disease specialist at Northwell Health, joined CBSN to discuss the latest.

Video Transcript

- Turning now to the coronavirus pandemic, the CDC says two new strains found in California are quote, "Variants of concern." And health officials worry fewer restrictions nationwide could make it easier for variants to spread, and potentially cause another surge. Cases in the US are now at more than 29.5 million, and the death toll stands at more than 537,000. Carter Evans has the latest from Los Angeles.

CARTER EVANS: Tonight, pressure is ramping up to reopen schools. One of the biggest hurdles, six foot social distancing. The CDC is now considering reducing the distance in classrooms to three feet.

- Is that too close?

- Well, three feet is manageable as long as you have masks in place.

CARTER EVANS: There appears to be some evidence that opening windows in classrooms can help prevent the spread.

- Absolutely. The more you can bring the outdoors in, the safer you can be.

CARTER EVANS: New data shows infection rates are highest between the ages of 12 and 17 in at least 34 states. The Biden administration is announcing tonight they'll distribute $10 billion in federal funds for coronavirus testing in schools, as 18 states report at least a 10% rise in new cases. This comes as 17 states are now allowing most, or all businesses, to reopen with no capacity limits. Perfect timing for a potential St. Patrick's Day surge.

- My concern is that we prematurely pull back, and don't give the vaccines time to continue to protect the country. Now, former President Donald Trump, is publicly encouraging his supporters to get vaccinated.

DONALD TRUMP: would recommend it. And I would recommend it to a lot of people that don't want to get it.

CARTER EVANS: And a dose of good news tonight in California. After being shut down for more than a year, Disneyland will reopen on April 30 at 15% capacity.

The mass vaccination site behind me here in Los Angeles is run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And today they opened up another one just like it in Cleveland. With plans to open more in Atlanta and Detroit, they can give up to 6,000 shots a day. Elaine.

- Evans, thank you. Dr. David Hirschwerk joins me now. He's an attending infectious disease specialist at Northwell Health. Doctor, thanks very much for being with us. The CDC is again predicting a decrease in coronavirus deaths over the next four weeks. What's driving this decline?

DR. DAVID HIRSCHWERK: Well, the overall rates in the country are starting to go down, and deaths usually lag behind the rates of new infections. And as the rates of new infections overall have come down, a few weeks later, we'll naturally see the rates of death start to go down.

- Well, 12% of the population is now fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. Do you believe efforts are moving fast enough to prevent another surge?

DR. DAVID HIRSCHWERK: Efforts are moving well. And it is good to see that more and more people are being vaccinated, and the levels are both being increased, and they're accelerating. So that's all great. I think that part of what will determine what we face in the next few weeks is going to be a combination of the degree of impact of opening businesses, and opening up society more. Together, with the penetration of some of these new variants that's going to steadily be increasing in our communities.

- Well, Dr. Anthony Fauci says it's unclear when the US might reach herd immunity. What factors will influence that timeline?

DR. DAVID HIRSCHWERK: So the herd immunity estimates require about 70% to 85% of the overall population having some degree of immune protection, either by protection from being vaccinated fully, or by having had prior infection. And part of that is going to be determined by the willingness and the ability of our communities to get vaccine in their arm. So I think that the pace is going well, but we need to hope to continue to roll it out at a rapid pace. And also, whatever hesitancy continues to appear in our communities, hopefully, that will steadily decline.

- Well, the World Health Organization is recommending countries continue to use the AstraZeneca vaccine, saying the benefits outweigh the risks. How big of a risk are blood clots?

DR. DAVID HIRSCHWERK: Well, blood clots are certainly a risk, but it is going to be unlikely that the blood clots that were reported are going to be clearly linked to the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Now, naturally, they need to do the studies and the analysis to be sure of that.

But I think it will very likely turn out that the benefits of continuing the vaccine process broadly in Europe, which currently is experiencing another significant surge, that the benefits of continuing with the vaccine rollout are very likely going to outweigh the risks of blood clots, which probably are not going to be clearly linked with the AstraZeneca vaccine.

- Well overall, coronavirus testing has been going down since January. Top health officials say the US needs to increase affordable at home coronavirus tests, especially for tracking asymptomatic cases. Doctor, how important do you think this is, and remind us, are at home tests any less effective?

DR. DAVID HIRSCHWERK: The at home tests are very good, but they're not quite as sensitive. But they still have a role. And the more testing that we can do, the better. I think that about a year ago when the pandemic really started in the spring, we were several steps behind, because we just did not have adequate testing available. And that was for people who were sick.

What we're talking about now needing to have the ability to do testing not only in those individuals that are ill, but also in asymptomatic individuals to see if for example, it's safe to engage in certain activities. Particularly, if those activities are going to be indoor activities, or involved with more crowds. So you know, the hope is that we can really regain traction, and start to increase the testing more and more, because it very much has a role, not only now, but going forward to really get full control and have our societies be able to live with the ongoing virus that we're going to have in our communities really for quite some time.

- Well, on Tuesday we learned of the first case of a baby being born with coronavirus antibodies after the mother was vaccinated. Vaccine trials in pregnant women are ongoing. How promising is this case?

DR. DAVID HIRSCHWERK: I think infants are often born with the antibodies that their moms have, because the IGG antibodies can pass through the placenta. The significance of this, and for how long that will last, I think is really to be determined.

- All right. Well, Dr. David Hirschwerk, Doctor, thank you very much for sharing your expertise with us.

DR. DAVID HIRSCHWERK: My pleasure. Thank you.