The United States is facing a “Category 5” storm as coronavirus variants begin to spread across the country, one of the nation’s top infectious disease experts said Sunday.
“We are going to see something like we have not seen yet in this country,” Michael Osterholm, PhD, MPH, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, said on NBC’s Meet the Press.
The United States has reported 467 cases of the coronavirus variant first identified in the United Kingdom, across 32 states, according to the CDC variant tracker. The United States has also reported three cases of the variant first identified in South Africa in South Carolina and Maryland. One case of the variant first identified in Brazil has been found in Minnesota.
Although overall COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have declined during the past few weeks, another storm is brewing on the horizon with the variants, Dr. Osterholm told host Chuck Todd. The U.K. variant will likely cause a surge in COVID-19 cases during the next 6-14 weeks, he said. “You and I are sitting on this beach where it’s 70 degrees, perfectly blue skies, gentle breeze. But I see that hurricane 5, Category 5 or higher, 450 miles offshore. And telling people to evacuate on that nice blue sky day is going to be hard. But I can also tell you that hurricane is coming.”
Dr. Osterholm urged federal and state officials to vaccinate as many people as possible to reduce the oncoming storm. The United States has distributed 49.9 million doses and administered 31.1 million doses, according to the latest CDC data updated Sunday, including 25.2 million first doses and 5.6 million second doses.
Doling out more doses to older Americans, rather than holding onto the second dose of the two-shot regimen, is an urgent decision, Dr. Osterholm said.
“I think right now, in advance of this surge, we need to get as many one doses in as many people over 65 as we possibly can to reduce serious illnesses and deaths that are going to occur over the weeks ahead,” he said.
The U.K. variant will likely become the dominant coronavirus strain in the United States in coming weeks, Dr. Osterholm said, adding that COVID-19 vaccines should be able to protect against it. In the meantime, however, he’s worried that the variant will cause more infections and deaths until more people get vaccinated.
“What we have to do now is also anticipate this and understand that we’re going to have change quickly,” he said. “As fast as we’re opening restaurants, we’re likely going to be closing them in the near term.”
A version of this article first appeared on WebMD.com.