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Researchers warn against easing COVID-19 restrictions too soon as variants spread

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As more Americans get vaccinated for the coronavirus, some governors are choosing to ease measures like statewide mask mandates. Jeffrey Shaman, director of the Climate and Health Program at Columbia University, joins CBSN to discuss his research team's model which details the estimated number of new coronavirus infections that may occur if guidelines are lifted amid the spread of highly contagious new variants.

Video Transcript

ERROL BARNETT: We're going to speak more about this now with Jeffrey Shaman. He's the Director of the Climate and Health program at Columbia University, where he teaches environmental health sciences. Jeff, thanks for your time and for speaking with us today on something that's really critical for everyone. Some states, as we see, softening, or at least doing away with mask mandates as more folks get vaccinated. But tell us about what you're finding through your model or what your team created which, projects the consequences of lifting restrictions too quickly.

JEFFREY SHAMAN: Yeah, the problem is that we're right now in a race. We're in a race between the virus and the vaccine. Even though viral cases, confirmed cases are dropping, hospitalizations are dropping, and hopefully deaths will start to drop on a national scale too, soon, right now it's a race. And what we want to do, is we want to get as much inoculant, as much of the vaccine in as many people's arms as possible prior to them actually encountering the virus.

The problem lies in the fact that right now there is a lot of impetus to relax things. We see sort of this light at the end of the tunnel because we have this vaccine. And at this point, about 40 million Americans have at least received their first dose, which is good. But we have a long way to go till we get to the point where we're really protected, where the numbers of new cases are crushed down to very low numbers, and we have this under control and can safely reopen.

If we reopen prematurely, what we were going to do is we're going to increase the opportunities for transmission of the virus. The virus is going to accelerate again and start to take off, and more people will catch the virus before they're vaccinated, which is something we don't want.

ERROL BARNETT: And how concerned are you about the emerging variants of the virus carrying this mutation? How might that play a role?

JEFFREY SHAMAN: Well, that actually is an additional complicating factor. So the evidence is fairly strong that the UK variant, which is in the United States and is doubling in number, estimates are right now about every 10 days relative to the total number of infections out there, that it's more transmissible. That it's going to be harder to control.

So in fact, it would be preferable right now if we could ratchet up the non-pharmaceutical interventions. The mask wearing, the social distancing, the restrictions of mass gatherings, to make sure we're keeping people safe, preventing them from getting infected, allowing them the time to get the vaccine, so we can keep them out of the hospital and prevent more deaths.

ERROL BARNETT: Now what do you make of new cases actually decreasing in many states across the country? What can we attribute that to, if you're warning that an uptick could be around the corner?

JEFFREY SHAMAN: Well, that's attributed to the fact that at this point where we are with the amount of control we put in place, we're kind of running through people who are capable of being exposed. It's a weird phenomenon. But coming out of the holidays, coming out of Christmas and New Year's, there was an acceleration of the virus, and it moved to record numbers. 250,000 confirmed cases in a day in the early weeks of January.

It actually surged us higher up, and now we've come crashing down and followed the trajectory we would have followed had we really not had the Christmas and New Year's break and the mixing and traveling that took place there. So where we are is not really surprising. The concern is, that if we let up on things, that will allow the virus to take off again. And even more so because of some of these new variants, which appear to be more transmissible.

ERROL BARNETT: Now how might the vaccination of kids play into a solution for all of this? AstraZeneca says it will test its vaccine on children ages six to 17. Similar trials are underway for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine. So what would that mean for the education system and for the battling this thing overall?

JEFFREY SHAMAN: Well, the reality is, in the immediate near term, it's not going to mean too much. Because those tests are ongoing and they still have to come out. And the prioritization is not to vaccinate children, simply because their rates of hospitalization and death when infected with this virus are much, much lower. This disease really affects people who are elderly and people with chronic conditions disproportionately. Older Americans are at risk.

So the priorities for the doses that we have right now with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are going to be get it into people 75 and older, 65 to 75, people with pre-existing conditions, essential workers, health care workers and teachers. We can get them into teachers, that's going to be very important. Even though they may not be at greater risk, psychologically, that's going to allow us to really open up the schools in a safer fashion.

ERROL BARNETT: So we are not out of this yet. A long way to go. At the very least, wear your mask as often as you can. Jeffrey Shaman--

JEFFREY SHAMAN: Absolutely.

ERROL BARNETT: --Thanks so much for your time and speaking with us today.

JEFFREY SHAMAN: My pleasure. Be well.